The Okanogan Highlands are commonly known as the hills and mountains rising east of the Okanogan River, in the northernmost parts of Okanogan County, extending north into Canada. Waters from the Highlands flow toward the Okanogan and Kettle Rivers. The diverse ecology of the Okanogan Highlands makes this area unique in Washington State. The Okanogan Highlands are home to a wide array of plant and wildlife species, including several rare, sensitive, and endangered species. It continues to be a favorite place for hunting, fishing, hiking, birding, and many other outdoor recreation activities. The landscape is tranquil mix of scattered homes with farming and ranching intermixed with forests and grasslands. Aspen and conifer forests, spruce bogs, and marshes blend with dry grassy slopes and meadows resplendent with wildflowers.
OHA monitors water quality at the now-closed gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain. Buckhorn is located on the historic "North Half" of the Colville Indian Reservation in North Central Washington, just south of the Canadian border on the Okanogan National Forest. Five perennial creeks (Bolster, Gold, Ethel, Marias and Nicholson) that originate on Buckhorn Mountain flow into two basins (Myers and Toroda Creeks) before flowing into the Kettle River in Canada and eventually into the the Columbia River.
Shortsighted industrialization, unsustainable resource extraction, and development threaten the natural beauty, wildlife habitat, economic diversity, and quality of life in the Okanogan Highlands. The health of aquatic and wildlife habitat on Buckhorn is threatened by contaminated waters and the privatization of public land. What was once National Forest land has been patented out of public ownership and turned over to a mining company, resulting in the loss of multiple use opportunities and increasing potential for future development that could further degrade habitat.
The Buckhorn Mine continues to contaminate groundwater emanating from Buckhorn Mountain in violation of The Department of Ecology’s discharge permit. Regulatory agencies responsible for controlling pollution have failed to hold Crown/Kinross accountable for permit violations, instead allowing them to continue with impunity. The mining company could leave the water contaminated, and with an inadequate surety bond, there is no guarantee that the issues would be resolved. The public could be left to pay the cost to clean up environmental damage left by the gold industry. (Details on how the Buckhorn mine is adversely affecting water quality can be found in the Mine Monitoring section of this website.)
Water resources throughout the highlands have been impacted by land management practices that degrade water and soil quality and increase sedimentation of waterways. Some logging and grazing practices do not adequately protect streams, springs, and seeps. Some homesite development methods impact waterways, promote the spread of weeds, and fragment wildlife habitat. Together, these issues threaten the health of highland ecosystems.