By Michael Howell
As part of the Bitterroot National Forest’s regular practice of updating the Board of County Commissioners on its plans and projects and accomplishments, BNF Supervisor Julie King took the opportunity to address the question of “coordination” between the agencies.
The County Commissioners last year joined American Stewards of Liberty, a private non-profit group which, according to its website, is “one of the nation’s most recognized private property rights organizations,” to learn how to better coordinate with the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies.
“From our perspective, we have been coordinating and it is definitely our hope to continue a positive relationship that is always responsive,” said King. She said that the Forest Service was successfully coordinating with the county now on road projects, law enforcement, noxious weeds and fire prevention.
King submitted a copy of a letter written by USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack last month in response to a letter he had received from Congressman Wally Herger on behalf of several Northern California County Boards of Supervisors, regarding the Forest Service’s obligation to coordinate with counties under several federal statutes.
Vilsack states that the primary responsibilities to coordinate with counties are found in the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under NFMA, he states, the Forest Service is required to coordinate land management planning, such as the amendment and revision of forest plans, with land management conducted by state and local governments so that it takes into account and considers the state or county’s plans for lands under their jurisdiction, and vice versa.
Vilsack goes on to say that based on some local government resolutions and letters, “it appears that some local government officials believe that the NFMA coordination requirement means that the Forest Service must incorporate specific provisions of county ordinances into forest plans or that the Forest Service must obtain local government approval before making planning decisions. This position overstates the Forest Service’s NFMA obligation. The statute does not specify which actions are required to coordinate Forest Service planning with local government planning and does not in any way subordinate Federal authority to counties.” He states that the Forest Service must consider the local objectives as expressed in plans and policies, assess the interrelated impacts, and determine how the forest plan should deal with the impacts identified.
“We know that’s true,” said Commission Chair Matt Kanenwisher, referring to Vilsack’s statement. “So the Forest Service must not do anything. There is no ‘must’ about it and some people have misunderstood it in other places.”
“Simply put,” he said, “the federal statutes require notification and meaningful involvement and that is all we are talking about now. There is no problem there.”
Kanenwisher said that what the county has to do is develop a structure for working consistently with the Forest Service.
“We need to understand the projects and schedule and understand the Forest Service’s planning process and what part the county can play, figure out where the county can plug in,” said Kanenwisher. “That’s all the statute requires, really,” he said.
King suggested that the county could put a representative on the ID Team associated with any planning project.
Mary Barton, a member of the public, spoke up and said that the Forest Service was a government agency and that the county was a government agency as well. She said that a private citizen should be included.
“Private citizens need to count seriously,” said Barton. She said that they sometimes have a different expertise and different experience to add to the process. “You need to get as big a picture as you can,” she said, “It is very important for private citizens to have an equal place at that table.”
Kanenwisher said that Barton’s comment went right to the point. He said the Forest Service and the county have to go through a public process.
“All of those are on behalf of and for the benefit of private citizens,” said Kanenwisher. “You said that private citizens are an entity. No. The entity is their representation.”
Barton said that she was talking about “participatory democracy.”
“I know sometimes you like to talk for us,” she said.
“That’s what I’m getting at,” said Kanenwisher. “We, your U.S. representatives, your local representatives, whoever you elect, do speak for you.” He said that the government representative arrives at his view through the public process and thus does represent the private citizens.
Kanenwisher said, “This meeting we are having an open discussion. You see how that can go. That can disintegrate pretty quickly.”
He asked King if the county developed a position, for instance, on the Forest’s Transportation Management Plan, perhaps supporting some option or opposing one, what the structure of the meeting would be like when they interfaced with the Forest Service.
“In our process we address comments made by any individual and try to address them all,” said King. “Nobody sitting at the table necessarily has a bigger voice.”
To Barton she said, “I have invited citizens in the past. For folks with a heightened interest there are avenues for you to participate more if you desire.”
King said the national forest system belongs to all the citizens of the United States and must be managed for the bigger picture.