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The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said Monday that proposed exploratory mining northeast of Mount St. Helens would present no significant environmental impact, but Ascot USA has a long road ahead if it ever tries to develop an actual mine.

The BLM’s decision would award Ascot two hard rock prospecting permits within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near the headwaters of the Green River, a branch of the Cowlitz and Toutle rivers. The area is about 12 miles northeast of the volcano and adjacent to the northern boundary of the 110,000 Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Ascot’s plans call for drilling up to 63 roadside exploration holes, each 2 to 3 inches in diameter, to look for copper, silver, gold and molybdenum on a mining claim in at Goat Mountain, where its subsurface rights are evenly split with the federal government.

Ascot needs to prove commercial quantities of ore are present to finance and get approval for a mine. Historical, small-scale traditional mining in the Green River Valley — mostly for copper — has never found rich deposits of valuable minerals.

Ascot would have to go through an entirely new, and far more extensive, review to actually develop a mine.

In 2011, the company first submitted two applications for prospecting permits for approximately 900 acres on national forest land in northwestern Skamania County. The lands were purchased by or donated to the federal government, so prospecting must have approval from both the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service’s decision did not permit a mine, “only prospecting (exploration) activities within the prospecting permit areas. It is not a mineral leasing or development (mining) proposal,” according to the consent document, written by Cowlitz Valley District Ranger Gar Abbas.

The BLM’s Monday decision is subject to a 30-day appeal.

The area is popular for horseback riding, camping and hunting, and, historically, was heavily used for logging and some mining. The Forest Service bought some of the land involved in the 1980s, using money meant to serve the interests of recreation and conservation. Environmental groups and many public officials have opposed the project from the start.

In February, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called out the Forest Service for “a short-sighted decision that undervalues the important benefits these public spaces offer both to our booming recreation economy and to families who come from near and far to enjoy their beauty.”

The nearby Green River is a state-designated gene bank for wild winter steelhead, meaning hatchery fish aren’t introduced. It’s also a candidate for a federal Wild and Scenic River designation. One of southwest Washington largest stands of surviving old growth forest — and area conservationists often call “The Valley of the Giants” — is located along the Green River just downstream of the proposed exploratory area.

The Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization American Rivers has twice declared the Green River, with its headwaters running close to the proposed drilling area, as one of the most endangered rivers in the nation, largely because of the mining proposal.

The Cascade Forest Conservancy, a regional conservation group, says mining exploration and development could harm threatened salmon and steelhead populations in the Green River and threaten downstream communities’ drinking water.

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