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What’s with this Ravalli County Natural Resources Policy?

 

There is rising interest in the Ravalli County Commissioners’ Natural Resources Policy (NRP).  It’s been mentioned at candidate forums and has received some press coverage.  Its originators have even requested that all candidates running for county office “pledge” to support the “NRP” even though it is still in draft form and has yet to be approved.

The NRP effort began in Darby with a self-appointed ad hoc committee whose goal was to return the local economy to a time when logging was a more dominant economic activity.  Their effort quickly morphed into the creation of a Working Draft promoting the poorly understood concept of “Coordination”, a term that in some circles is “code” for increasing local government control over federal lands.  The Commissioners sanctioned the effort and it was “officially” declared open for public participation, but only after a rigid and restricted framework had already been established.  Although early participants claim that the process was always open and transparent, the importance, significance and implications of the NRP were never made clear to the citizens of the county at large.  The Draft is now on a fast track for completion and is expected to be approved by the Commissioners as “Ravalli County Policy” within weeks.

Early on, a number of us expressed concern that the Darby policy appeared more of a plan than a policy, that it overemphasized the controversial term “Coordination” and that the document could be vastly improved if it was reworked by a group more representative of the county.  These concerns were disregarded.  Supposedly, there was insufficient time to permit substantive or structural changes to the Darby Draft. The Commissioners informed us that the Darby Draft would be “the template” for the county NRP and that any changes to the Darby document would be limited to editorial changes approved during regularly scheduled Commission meetings.

What’s wrong with this picture?

To begin, why is it necessary to state, on the very first page, that: “It is the policy of Ravalli County to invoke coordination (my emphasis) with any and all appropriate agencies…”?  When asked to remove references to “Coordination” and focus on actual policy, Nancy Ballance, one of the authors and candidate for the state House of Representatives, said that this would be a difficult task because: “Coordination is such an integral part of the NRP”.  “Invoke” seems an awfully strong word when suggesting how to work with cooperating agencies, especially when the Forest Service (in this case) routinely coordinates (cooperates) with counties and has been doing so long before the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the legislation that the authors cite as authority for “invoking Coordination”.

Next, why state: “The Bitterroot National Forest should return to its original direction and mission established by law for managing public lands and forests for the public good.”?  This implies some existing violation of purpose.  The BNF has been operating legally and for the good of all citizens since its inception.  National Forests have long been managed under the philosophy of their first Chief, Gifford Pinchot, for “the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.”  This includes local governments.

Next, why is there a section on “Constitutional Principles and Private Property” and why is the first statement; “The U.S. Constitution created a form of government characterized by: 1. Limited powers granted to the federal government.”?  Isn’t this supposed to be a natural resource policy that enhances cooperation and not one that implies subtle challenge to federal land management agency authority?

These points, coupled with the request by initial policy drafters to “pledge” support of the still unfinished policy and a resistance by the Commissioners to modify the framework of the document suggests that there could be more to the NRP than “providing guidance for managing natural resources”.  There is reason to at least question motive.  I am reminded too well of the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Wise Use Movement, Contra County and other ill-advised efforts to take control of public lands.

I and several others developed an alternative to the Draft NRP and it can be viewed at:

(https://sites.google.com/site/bitterrootvalleyresourcepolicy/). Its intent is to be more: balanced; forward looking; economically diverse and equitable in terms of priority for resource commodities, resource amenities and the environment.  Look for yourself.

Admittedly, our alternative represents the views of a limited number of individuals, as does the current NRP Draft.  However, our proposal is purposely incomplete and open ended.  We invite other county citizens to integrate their policy recommendations with ours – creating an even more valuable, acceptable and inclusive document.  Ideally, we would prefer to start over and develop a truly integrated policy from scratch.  If we were to start over and include a broad array of interests from the “get go”, we could create a document superior to either of the existing ones.

In any case, we should strive for an NRP that provides balanced guidance for managing all Ravalli County resources.  It should not contain a hint of suspicious motives or hidden agendas.  Yes, the Commissioners have stated that county control of federal lands is furthest from their thoughts.  However, if this is really the case, then why not start over and develop a broad based Natural Resources Policy in which we can all take pride and that everyone can support?

Skip Kowalski

Stevensville

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