By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners have been reviewing, line by line, a natural resource policy submitted to them for consideration by a group of citizens on June 4, 2012. During the course of review and based on public comment, the citizen’s group that originally submitted the draft policy made some drastic changes and re-submitted a revised document a few weeks later, reducing the number of pages from 46 pages down to 15 pages with an appendix. The commissioners have been editing that document at weekly meetings since that time.
Critics of the policy have complained that major changes are being made to the document outside the public process. Members of the committee, including spokesperson Nancy Ballance, claim that their meetings are open to the public and anyone can attend.
At a previous commissioners’ meeting, Kelsey Milner stated that a number of people had gotten together and were forming an alternative policy that focused not so much on reviving the resource extractive industries that have declined due to economic factors beyond the county’s control, to one that will focus on resource dependent but non-consumptive uses, such as tourism, recreation, retirement income, and technical and professional services. At that time Milner submitted a one-page introduction and synopsis of the alternative policy goals. Now, he and several other co-signers, including Skip Kowalski, Kirk Thompson, Bill LaCroix, Jim Miller, Larry Campbell, Tony Wood and Russ Lawrence, have submitted a more detailed 10-page draft policy addressing such things as the relationship between the county and the Bitterroot National Forest, the value of public land to the county, particularly addressing agriculture, outdoor recreation, tourism, water, timber, wilderness and roadless areas, fire, and custom and culture.
Kirk Thompson said that many in their group felt like the commissioners were not heeding appropriate criticism during their review of the “resource extraction policy” submitted to them by the other citizen’s group. He said they have declined to address mistakes and misleading remarks in the document.
One mistake, he said, was blaming the decline of the valley’s resource extraction industries on environmentalists and lawsuits shutting down access to the forest. He said when the last sawmill closed in the valley the log yards were stacked to the gill. He said there was no shortage of timber from the forest. He said it was a lack of market for timber and the crash of the housing market that was driving the economics.
Thompson said the commissioners also failed to consider the income to the county from federal land located here, despite the downturn in the lumber and logging business. He said the commissioners continue to emphasize that 75% of the land in the county is federally managed land and out of the tax base. Combined with dropping revenues from timber sales they paint a picture of a catastrophic loss to the county.
In reality, said Thompson, the federal government paid approximately $2.5 million to the county through the Secure Rural Schools Act and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) in fiscal year 2012. That comes to about $2.28 per acre of federal land in the county. He contrasted that to about 20 cents per acre per year in tax revenue from forested private land in the county. Subsequently he has come up with one tax statement from the south valley, on the CB Ranch, showing that it is closer to $0.10 per acre.
Thompson and Milner both complain that the draft natural resource policy being examined and amended is too convoluted and confused with the concept of “coordination” which, in their thinking, is a strategy for working with the U.S. Forest Service, not a policy about natural resources.
The commissioners have rejected that view and consider the “coordination” process central to any natural resource policy, as does the citizens group that submitted the draft policy.
Julie King, Supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest, has clearly stated that the Forest Service has a different understanding of what “coordination” means in federal law than the commissioners. She insists that the Forest Service does coordinate with the county in the forest planning process, as required by law. She believes the commissioners are operating under a different understanding of the term.
Commissioner Suzy Foss has acknowledged that there is a difference in interpretation, and that the courts would have to make the final decision as to which interpretation is correct.
Milner said that beyond that discussion, the natural resource aspects of the policy under consideration are “equally worrisome.”
“They clearly reflect the opinions of those who believe that local control of federal land, resource extraction, reduced regulation, unrestricted capitalism, and reliance on free markets will bring the increased prosperity we all desire. Many of us believe this is a recipe for disaster, as it is, in our opinion, the same philosophy that has allowed us to foul so much of our planet and contributed to the economic woes we currently suffer,” said Milner in a public statement.
“Those who argue for opening up the public land to resource exploitation are living in a previous century and viewing the past through rose colored glasses,” stated Milner.
Milner and Thompson said that they are currently seeking support from other valley groups, organizations, businesses and individuals before they formally present their alternate policy to the commissioners.
The commissioners have consistently insisted that they are conducting a public process and are interested in considering any public input on the subject.