By Michael Howell
Close to thirty people attended a meeting in Darby last week designed to broaden the local efforts at “coordination” beyond the issue of wolf management to issues involving natural resource management on the National Forest in general. The coordination movement is a political strategy that hopes to strengthen the role of local government in its dealings with state and federal agencies. The strategy is being promulgated and promoted by a Texas based organization called American Stewards of Liberty. Ravalli County officially joined the effort last June when the commissioners voted to contract with the organization for consulting purposes.
The first steps taken locally were directed at the issue of wolf reintroduction. The Commissioners have solicited public input on the effects of living with wolves in the valley and are attempting to document the historical, economic and cultural impacts of the state and federal management of wolves on local citizens. The process is headed toward a local large predator management plan that takes the local impacts, including economic impacts, into consideration. This plan would be used in “coordinating” with state and federal agencies involved in wolf management.
The meeting in Darby clearly signaled a broadening of the local “coordination” effort beyond the wolf issue to include other forest management issues in general, such as issues over water use, grazing, timber harvest, firewood gathering, off-road use and recreation.
Moderator for the meeting, former state legislator Fred Thomas, said it seems like the citizens of Ravalli County are “under siege” by the powers of the “industrial/environmental complex” that have taken over forest management, leaving the public with “less access, less jobs and less resources.”
“Our forests have never been in worse shape,” said Thomas.
Thomas introduced Painted Rocks Fire Chief Charles Scripps, who recounted his experience handling the Saddle Complex Fire, when two fires joined and burned up about 18,000 acres in about five hours. Scripps said there is no way that a fire of that size and intensity, moving that fast, could be fought. He said the only way you could fight a fire like that was to start five years before it happened with fire wise management policies. Scripps had high praise for the local firefighters and how they were able to put their knowledge and expertise to work.
Asked about the willingness of the federal agencies involved to “coordinate” efforts with local fire districts, Scripps once again had only positive comments to make. He said the federal agencies recognized the value of the local knowledge and experience and worked well with the local fire districts in planning and implementing fire control efforts. Asked if they are being left out of long range planning for the future, he said the agencies were coordinating well with the local fire districts on long range plans.
However, guest speaker Lezlie Kinne, an irrigation district commissioner from Harrison, Montana, had a different kind of experience in dealing with federal agencies over water issues in Madison County. Not happy over the experience, she sought help and found it, she said, in the American Stewards of Liberty “coordination” efforts. She went to Denver and received training in the strategy and the practical aspects of implementing it.
“The government is not your friend,” she told the gathering. “You have to know that when you deal with a government agency. The government is not always on the up and up. They can sit there and lie to your face.”
She said “coordination” was not a “silver bullet”, but it can help in crucial ways. She explained the legal concept as it is embedded in a number of laws including NEPA, which requires “government to government coordination” on all phases of planning and implementation of management policies.
“The federal government is required to coordinate with local government,” she said. “Local government shouldn’t have to go whining to them.” She said the process is spreading throughout the West where resource management issues are having a more direct impact on local economies.
She cautioned local officials about how to handle the government to government meetings.
“It’s your meeting,” she said. “You keep control of the meeting. You run the meeting. They will try to take over.” She said following that initial meeting, local officials need to “debrief” themselves immediately but not in the presence of federal officials. Then a press release should be put out followed by a letter to the agency officially documenting the coordination process which has begun.
She went point by point through the American Stewards of Liberty strategy for implementing coordination, a strategy that was outlined in a 2009 issue of Standing Ground, a publication of the organization and made available at the meeting. Also made available from a 2007 issue was an eight-point checklist for dealing with government agencies “when you are fighting a local anti-private property rights issue.”
“Know your issues. Be prepared to go the distance. Be prepared to dig in. Be resolved to stand your ground. Don’t take no for an answer. It’s your land. It’s your family. It’s your jobs,” said Kinne.
She cautioned that there would be a lot of resistance. “You have to have your Sheriff on board,” she said. “He is the last stand against the federal agencies.”
County Commissioner Suzy Foss, who was instrumental in arranging the meeting, defended the county’s involvement in the coordination movement, saying that there was a window of opportunity open that called for action.
“This is our moment,” said Foss. She said it was time to assert local power and do what we can to protect local interests that are too often ignored by big government. She noted that the county was already moving the coordination effort forward on the wolf issue and that this would be the first step in initiating a similar process concerning forest management.
“We are going to be meeting with the Forest Service to see if we can start a new kind of relationship,” Foss assured those listening. She said that Ravalli County had commissioners ready to help and were lucky to have a Planning Department Manager who has training in coordination.
Foss said the next step was to get a committee organized and write a letter to the Forest Service making the agency aware that a coordination effort had begun.