On Jan. 23, the Grant County Court agreed to look into the idea of “invoking coordination” with federal and state agencies as a way to protect community interests during planning for projects on public lands. How the process would work has yet to be determined.
In 2017, 22 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged President Donald Trump to sign an executive order declaring that counties have an “equal,” not subordinate, role in government-to-government coordination.
However, Glenn Casamassa, the new regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service Region 6, said the agency has its own federal laws and rules to follow that could prevent adhering to county plans.
Commissioner Sam Palmer, who introduced draft language showing how coordination could be invoked, has been away since then, and no more discussion on the matter has taken place, Grant County Judge Scott Myers said in a Feb. 15 email.
“We don’t know if we might join another county moving forward or go it alone,” he said. “In recent discussions with other commissioners and judges from around the state (in Salem during the Association of Oregon Counties meeting), there are several attempts in the works to move forward as well, and different styles of doing that.”
Myers was confident that Grant County will look further into how to coordinate planning with federal agencies.
“It may turn out that we appoint a committee to carry issues forward in a manner that will be clearly understood by agencies, allowing us to break a cycle of stagnation in those relationships,” he said.
Regional forester weighs in
Casamassa, the regional forester, told the Eagle in a Feb. 11 interview that he spoke with people in Eastern Oregon about coordination when he traveled through the area last fall.
“What we’re trying to do now all throughout the region really is centered on how to reset our overall approach to coordination with the counties,” he said.
As part of the coordination process, counties would be able to participate in earlier stages of the planning process and play a role in determining outcomes, including “even our programmatic or broad-scale planning efforts, like forest plans and other kinds of site-specific proposals and planning efforts, area by area plans.”
When asked about the legal definition of coordination, Casamassa said, “It’s keeping each other informed, it’s working together, it’s establishment of a recognition that there are a lot more similarities in what the overall outcomes are, and that it’s achieving that similar outcome and purpose.”
Casamassa was familiar with coordination resolutions passed over the years by counties in rural western states that called for federal agencies to abide by their prescriptive ordinances.
“While I understand some of that, it’s really all about the federal estate having laws and regulations that we have to adhere to, and if it goes counter to the ordinance or resolutions, we’re put in a position that we can’t follow what the counties would want us to do,” he said.
Casamassa said the Forest Service recognizes the strong attachment to the land by rural people that goes back generations, and that the agency should not be over-regulatory.
“We should work together, solve problems, look at solutions that are durable, that are politically and socially durable, and that they’re in it for the long term to sustain a community and the resources around the county,” he said.
A previous letter to Congress
In August 2017, House members from 14 states urged President Trump to sign an executive order requiring that federal agencies overseeing public lands coordinate their planning with state and local governments.
“Unfortunately, under prior administrations, federal departments and agencies often disregarded the views of local officials when creating management policies that had broad sweeping impacts,” the congressmen said. “To be blunt, the prevailing attitude was often ‘Washington knows best.’”
According to their five-page draft executive order, coordination refers to “government-to-government oral and written communications between authorized representatives of a federal agency and the elected officials of a state or local government or their duly authorized representatives.”
Furthermore, the draft order states, “Coordination means the responsibilities of each government entity are equal, not subordinate, and therefore must be harmonized for effective governance.”
The draft order specifies that local or state governments must be provided a written review document about any federal actions before they are presented for public comment. The review document must include a determination by a state or local official stating whether the proposed federal action is consistent with state or local objectives, plans, policies and programs.
Before issuing a final decision order on a proposed federal plan, policy or program, the responsible agency must provide state and local governments with a document that describes efforts made to coordinate, identifies any issues or conflicts with state or local plans, policies or programs, and explains how those issues and concerns were resolved.
Federal agencies must keep apprised of state and local government’s land and resource use plans, policies and programs and must make all reasonable efforts to achieve consistency between federal, state and local objectives, plans, policies and programs, the draft order states.
“To ensure that the coordination process is properly completed, each federal agency shall appoint an official who is responsible for ensuring that meaningful and effective government-to-government coordination is completed in advance of the federal agency’s completion of the (National Environmental Policy Act) process and the final agency decision,” the draft order states.
Coordination, 10 years ago
The county court discussed the idea of coordination when Dennis Reynolds served as Grant County judge from 1995-2006. Five years after he left office, the court asked him to travel to a conference on the subject and report back.
“There were a lot of inappropriate assumptions, which we are still suffering from today,” he told the Eagle.
Legal counsel, local government representatives and even some federal agency personnel attended the two-day conference at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyoming, he said.
In his report on the conference to the court, Reynolds recommended against requesting coordination with the Forest Service, based on the information provided at the conference.
Reynolds learned that only elected officials could participate in the public lands planning process once the county requested coordination, and they couldn’t provide expert testimony. The officials could only speak as representatives of their constituents, Reynolds said.
The Grant County judge and commissioners didn’t have the time or staff to work with the Forest Service at that level of involvement, Reynolds said in his report. On top of that, he said he learned that the Forest Service could bill the county for any time spent coordinating with the county in the planning process.
Reynolds said the county cannot simply tell the federal government what to do with its public lands. His advice today is that the county coordinate with other counties to lobby Congress to change public lands management policies. He said that would be a better use of county funds.