By Michael Howell
Last week Commissioner Suzy Foss presented a proposal to her fellow commissioners to join the American Lands Council, an organization based in Utah, that is dedicated to gaining local control of federal lands. Utah State Representative Ken Ivory is listed as the contact person on the organization’s website. Over a dozen counties in that state have joined the organization. Foss said membership for a county costs $5,000 annually.
In an informal discussion of the proposal the previous week, Foss said that she had lined up $2,000 in private donations to pay for the membership and suggested the county might pick up the remaining $3,000. But at the meeting held on Monday, October 28, with a possible decision on the agenda, she suggested setting up a fund to collect private donations similar to the one the commission recently set up to hire a Wyoming law firm to work on objections to federal water right applications in the county. She said that she had lined up three individuals who are willing to donate, $2,500, $250 and $100 respectively. At that time she did not explicitly mention putting any county taxpayer money into the fund.
The rest of the commissioners balked at the proposal. Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows quickly stated that he believed the issue was important enough to get more public vetting of the proposal than the two members of the public who were present, “especially if it means using one dollar of county taxpayers’ money.”
Commissioner J.R. Iman said that he was not familiar with the organization and would need to learn more before being able to even consider the matter.
Foss spoke at length about the organization’s involvement in educating people about the matters of land access, land use, and land ownership especially having to do with federal lands. She said the $5,000 membership fee was “not a commitment, it just basically helps them do legal research and help counties put on demonstrations explaining the study and research.”
Burrows summed it up in one sentence, saying, “It’s about local control of federal lands.”
Iman said that federal land issues in Utah are different from those in Montana. He said Utah was close to 90% federally owned and most of it was run by the Bureau of Land Management. He said the state of Montana, on the other hand, was only about 20% federally owned and most of that was U.S. Forest Service land. He wasn’t sure the two were comparable and said he would have to hear a lot more.
The lone member of the public present, other than a reporter, noted that the organization was a 501(c)(4) and was thus a political lobbying group. He expressed concern about the county being involved and mentioned what he called the Wal-Mart situation, where a political lobbying group was set up to advocate the location of a Wal-Mart store in the valley. He said the fund was set up by a small donation from the secretary of the organization and then Wal-Mart dumped huge money into the group. He didn’t think it was a good idea to put the County seal on a political lobbying organization like this that may not represent the county’s citizens.
When asked by the reporter who was making the donations that she claimed to have lined up, Foss refused to answer. She said that she did not want to say without first talking to them over privacy concerns.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott, who is past president of the Montana Association of Counties, and has spent time in Washington DC lobbying on its behalf, said that lobbying is what elected officials do to protect the interests of the people they serve.
Foss said that lobbying was one of the most important parts of an elected official’s duties.
In the end it was decided to put off any decision about the matter until the commissioners had a chance to learn more about the organization.
Foss said she had already arranged for that to happen by inviting Rep. Ivory to the valley to talk about it.
She has arranged two meetings to take place on December 11, one in the afternoon for elected officials and business owners to be educated and updated on what she calls “the regional movement to transfer our public lands to state and local management.” This meeting will be in BJ’s meeting room from 2 to 3:30 p.m. She states in an e-mail that “this meeting is for elected officials and supporting interested parties as it is a chance to discuss legislative and county government policy.”
The second meeting, to be held at the Eagles Lodge, 125 N. 2nd in Hamilton at 6:30 p.m., “will be more general and an overview along with how individuals can get involved.”
Earlier this month, Foss attended two invitation-only conferences on the legal and ethical way to accomplish the movement’s goals. The Heritage Foundation out of Washington DC supports the Transfer of Public Lands (TPL) concept and hosted one of the meetings, which were held in Park City, Utah.
Foss is also looking for sponsor organizations to both assist with some small funds needed to pay a share of the airfare and room rental at the Eagles and some advertising for a total of $500, or for the use of organization/business names to use in the advertising as supporting organizations.
“We want the public to have awareness of and access to the various groups working together to solve these management problems in a legal and responsible way. We need to pull together moving forward as there is strength in numbers and we are all looking toward a workable solution,” she wrote in her e-mail.