By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners all gave a thumbs up to the Natural Resource Use Policy that they have been editing at multiple meetings since last spring. The policy was first drafted by a citizens group that wants to see the timber industry revived in the county. They laid out a plan for management of natural resources focusing especially on forest management practices. Interwoven in the document are references to the concept of “coordination,” that is the idea that with its own natural resource use policy in hand the Board of County Commissioners will have a special seat at the table in the Forest Service’s planning process.
Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King has stated more than once that she believes the Forest Service is and has been coordinating with the local government in its management plans. She believes the county commissioners may have a different definition for the term.
One of the most vocal critics of the policy, Kelsey Milner, thinks the natural resource management issues should be separated from the issue of “coordination,” which he sees as a method for implementing the policy.
At the latest meeting on Thursday, Milner said the policy “smells like county supremacy and an attack on public lands.” He and a group of citizens did present an alternative policy for consideration that was less resource extraction oriented and concentrated more on the value of the forest for recreation and tourism related businesses.
Nancy Ballance, who has acted as spokesperson for the Natural Resource Use committee that drafted the document being adopted, argued successfully to the commissioners that the concept of “coordination” was crucial to the document and could not be separated out. She said on Thursday, “Clearly when NEPA was passed it was recognized that the county and local government do have a special place at the table when planning resource management activities.” She said that the commissioners were not experts in forestry or hydrology, “but they are experts on the local economy, customs and culture that need to be protected and preserved.”
Several people spoke in opposition to the policy.
Jim Olsen called it “a little reactionary,” and urged the commissioners to try and reach consensus on management issues. He said people who work in the woods and people who recreate there both love the same landscape and that timber harvesting could be successfully combined with environmental considerations.
Russ Lawrence was also critical of the policy. He said the document submitted read more like a detailed management plan instead of a policy. He said that he had been to many of the meetings where the policy was discussed and that the only change he saw was that the commissioners replaced the word “plan” with the word “policy.” He urged the commissioners to consider the alternative policy that was drafted by a separate group.
Keith Kubista expressed support for the policy. Concerning forest management, he said, “the status quo is not working.” He said that management by the Forest Service has turned the forest into “non-consumptive wastelands and predator sanctuaries.” He said the concept of “coordination” was very important.
Vito Ciliberti also supported the policy and called it a balanced approach to forest management.
“We’ve got to do better than letting it burn,” he said.
Several people were critical of the process by which the policy was drafted, claiming they were left out of the process.
Commissioner Suzy Foss disagreed about the public not having a chance to participate. She said the public was welcome at every meeting that was held. She said she recognizes that some people don’t agree with the “coordination” agenda.
“I didn’t believe in zoning,” she said.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said, “Nothing is final here. We can re-visit this policy any time and make changes. It’s a living document.”
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the commissioners have gone through the document word by word and that it was a necessary tool for negotiating with the Forest Service over management activities.
“We are looking to enhance the county’s input in forest management,” he said. He challenged anyone to find the word “supremacy” in the document.
“We are going to have a seat at the table now,” said Chilcott.
The commissioners unanimously approved the policy and a meeting was set for Friday, November 16, to officially adopt it by resolution.