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County natural resource policy being hashed out

By Michael Howell

Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) Supervisor Julie King told Ravalli County Commissioners last week that Bitterroot National Forest officials will not be participating in the local attempt at forming a natural resource policy. The county is developing the policy to address the management of natural resources in the county, including those resources located on federal and state managed lands in the county. The county hopes to use the policy in its efforts at coordination with the Forest Service on management activities on the forest.

King told the commission that the BNF Land and Resource Management Plan was adopted in 1987. She said this is the document that will govern natural resource management on the Forest until it is revised according to federal laws and regulations. She said that the BNF was not engaged in the Forest Plan revision process at this time and may not get to it for another few years. She said that would be the appropriate time to consider the county’s proposed management for the forest.

“Forest Service actions and procedures are governed by applicable federal laws and therefore it would be inappropriate for myself or other BNF representatives to edit and attempt to finalize a Draft Natural Resource Management Plan for Ravalli County,” wrote King.

King told the commission that collaboration with other agencies, such as Ravalli County, on natural resource management planning was not legally required until the revision process was underway and then it would follow the process laid down in federal law. She said that in the general sense of the term the BNF feels it is already coordinating by attending regular updates with county officials, keeping communication open. She said the agency was always willing to work with the county in the best way possible.

“But what you understand as ‘coordination’,” said King, “we are doing already.”

King said that if it would help, the county and the Forest Service could work out a formal agreement or memorandum of understanding as to how they will work in cooperation on a regular basis. She said other counties had done it.

The commissioners then continued the review of a proposed Natural Resource Policy submitted by a citizen’s committee on June 4th. County Planning Administrator Terry Nelson noted that since the last public meeting several recommended changes had been submitted by the committee to the initial portion of the document that had already been reviewed. These were small, mostly technical corrections. However, he said, he had a whole new draft of the document that made “drastic changes” including the complete replacement of one entire chapter on off-road use. The commissioners decided to take up with the newly submitted document and had Nelson make copies for the audience.

Nancy Ballance, spokesperson for the citizen’s committee, said that initially the group made some minor changes in the first draft, but then they decided to replace the whole chapter on roads and trail access.

“Then we realized there was so much verbiage that the true policies and goals, and in some cases the objectives, were kind of getting lost,” she said. “So we took the verbiage out and moved it to an appendix as well as most of the objectives, except in the case of the off-road use where they were really significant.”

The result was a policy statement reduced from 46 pages down to 15 with an appendix.

While copies of the new document were being made, Kelsey Milner, who represents a few community conservation groups, presented a policy statement of his own. Milner said that he had rethought his statement from June 4th that he couldn’t participate in principle in a process that he thought was already off track. He said the fate of our natural resources was more important than his ego, so he and his compatriots put together a draft policy statement of their own that they would like to submit to the process.

Milner criticized the current draft under consideration, saying that it was confusing because it was actually two policies interwoven with each other. He said on the one hand it contains a natural resource policy and on the other hand a policy for collaboration. He said they were two different things and suggested they be dealt with separately.

“One is a policy about how you want natural resources in the county to be managed, the other is a policy about how you go about working with the federal government to achieve those goals,” he said.

He said if the coordination policies were separated out and the commissioners took those natural resource policy suggestions along with those submitted by his group that they could reach some common ground.

Commission Chair Suzy Foss said, “I do believe trying to have as many voices as possible is a good thing. I don’t have a problem with that. I’d like to make it clear to you, though, that what we do will be up to each commissioner who is sitting at the time. But I know that this board looks very strongly at that if there are areas where we feel that we need to put coordination, whatever we come up with, we’ll do that. But frankly, I’d far rather have something that has everybody’s input because it is easy to see things through our tunnel vision. I didn’t want people to ever feel that we were trying to snooker them into an ‘oh, yeah, well, we’ll take up coordination for a while but, aha, we are going to do it later.’

It’s a tool that the federal government has given us to give us some teeth at the table.”

Ballance noted that the focus of her committee’s document was clearly to interweave the two policies because that is how they saw them, as totally tied together.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that the primary aim of the policy is to identify recommendations for land management on federal and state managed lands and that the natural resource issues could be separated out from the collaboration issues.

Foss agreed, saying, “It does make for a better document that more people can embrace and they might even understand better what coordination means if they see where it is being used.”

When it came to a review of the revised and shortened document there was only time to consider the first sections on custom and culture and the economy. There was no disagreement from anyone about the one goal associated with custom and culture, to “encourage the preservation of our cultural heritage.”

The committee’s policy statement focuses on the decline of the lumber and woods product industry and the transformation of the local economy into a low wage service industry economy combined with a large percentage of un-earned income from retirement and investments, etc. The policy statement identifies the cause of the decline.

“The decline is primarily due to external forces such as appeals and litigation of timber sales on federal lands in Ravalli County,” the policy states.

“Changes in the availability and management of natural resources that swing too far in favor of either extraction or conservation of resources adversely affect the balance of jobs, property taxes, quality of life, and migration patterns that have sustained the county residents,” it states.

The “suggested goals: improve the economic viability of the natural resource based industries; provide incentives to existing and new natural resource related industries; promote and expand tax incentives and balanced tax policies to assist existing and new natural resource industries; promote local control over natural resource policies.”

Chilcott noted, “We don’t have local control over national forest policies.” He suggested the wording be changed to “promote enhanced influence over natural resource policies.”

The policy submitted for consideration by Milner appears to accept the same general terms for the economy, recognizing that it has shifted from a resource extraction base to a service and tourist oriented economy. Rather than focus on the industries in decline, this policy advocates focusing on and encouraging those businesses that are going to drive the new economy.

“We anticipate that tourism, recreation, retirement, technical and professional service industries will dominate in the future,” states the policy.

The policy goals laid out by the groups covers only one third of a typewritten page and sees the preservation of a clean and beautiful natural environment as the cornerstone of its future economy, drawing in people with retirement and investment incomes, drawing in hunters and fishermen, and tourists.

The plan for now is to complete the review and amendment of the committee’s draft policy submitted last Thursday in a series of public meetings. It is unclear if the second policy statement submitted by Milner will also be reviewed in the same fashion or not.

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