Baker County and its commission chairman, Bill Harvey, made a mark in public lands management in 2015 when it established a position demanding that federal and state agencies coordinate with local governments.
Harvey, who first learned about the coordination requirement from Idaho attorney Fred Kelly Grant, now helps other counties learn how to successfully negotiate public land management through the coordination process.
Harvey delivered this message in a sometimes emotional meeting at the Grant County Regional Airport on April 25.
According to Grant and Harvey, coordination is a congressionally authorized process requiring agencies meet in a government-to-government dialogue in order to reach consistency between local and state or federal land management planning.
Harvey noted, when he first came to Baker County in the early 1970s, six timber mills operated. There are none now, he said. The county saw good forest management and had good roads and good schools back then, he said.
What changed, he asked: Did the county run out of trees or the ability to manage forests? No, it was a change in philosophy by government, he said, and the change came from people who don’t live here.
In terms of wildfire hazards, the forests get worse every year, Harvey said. It’s not because of climate change, he said, but increasing fuel loading caused by forest management policies.
Harvey noted that forests around Paradise, California, last year were “thick with fuels.” He called last year’s inferno “the most preventable disaster we have ever had.”
A 40-year-old law, the 1976 Federal Land Policy Management Act, provided the first congressional mandate for coordination between local and federal governments. The act states that federal agencies “shall” coordinate, Harvey noted. Words matter, he said.
Supporters of the coordination process saw progress when it came to the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision. The Forest Service typically spends too much time developing plans, he said, and officials are upset when locals oppose their plans.
But locals opposed the Forest Plan for 15 years, he said. They kept telling the Forest Service the plan doesn’t work. It had become “so convoluted it was worthless,” he said, but Forest Service officials were afraid to do anything because of environmental lawsuits.
During the objection process, Forest Service officials from Washington, D.C., came to local meetings expecting harsh treatment. Instead, they encountered a friendly crowd, and they listened, Harvey said.
“By the grace of God, they opened their eyes,” Harvey said, and the Forest Plan was withdrawn. Locals had won the battle but not the war, he said. There are good people in Washington now, and maybe local land managers will listen to them, he said.
County governments were reduced to a single comment during the objection process, which did not sit well with them, Harvey said. A better approach is to use the coordination process to ensure local needs are adequately addressed throughout the land management process, he said.
Harvey didn’t advise simply invoking coordination. The first step is to draft a natural resource plan as a guideline. If written correctly, state and federal agencies must take it into consideration, he said.
Judy Kerr noted that a natural resource plan for Grant County brought to the county court in September 2015 was based entirely on the Baker County plan. A court ruling, however, prevented it from being put on the May 2016 ballot.
The county must also establish a Natural Resource Advisory Committee to advise the county court, Harvey said. The county court should appoint the committee members, he said, and he advised against relying on a single person for that role. Baker County whittled down its advisory committee to 13 members after some of them weren’t willing to commit themselves to all the hard work, Harvey said.
Committee members could be recruited to attract professionals and diversity. Past Forest Service employees dissatisfied with the agency would make good committee members, he said, but he advised against establishing an unauthorized citizens committee or appointing any current federal employees, which could create a conflict of interest.
Jim Sproul said Grant County had a natural resource plan and committee, but it had been “drug through the dirt.” He said the plan was backed with good documentation and was a good starting point. It has been a tough four years, he said, and it was a blessing to finally see everything come together the way it is.
Most people don’t understand coordination, Dave Traylor said. Many people think, if people in New Jersey don’t have a say, it’s not coordination, he said.
People in other states have the right to provide input on land management planning here, Harvey said, just as people here have the right to provide input there. But people here don’t do that, and wouldn’t expect them to come here. They’re not familiar with our needs, he said.
The pendulum for public land management has swung, Harvey said. Even environmentalists agree about the overabundance of forest fuels, and locals need to push back in an organized way to make the changes they want to see, he said.