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Guest Opinions

Why Counties Matter

Written by Pete Obermueller

Counties are a big deal in Wyoming. I imagine you would expect me to say that given my position. Or, at least my 91 bosses who are elected County Commissioners would expect me to say that. Still, no matter the source or the motives for saying it, the fact remains – counties are a big deal.

I suspect you agree with me on an intuitive level. After all, we in Wyoming closely identify with the county where we live. I’m not sure how it works in other states, but here we learn our county number by the fourth grade and, when older, are proud to have it prominently displayed on our license plate. 

Admit it, you can probably recall your county number faster than you can recall your own age or the number of your anniversary. Like an old favorite song, our county number and all it represents is something permanently branded into our consciousness. Maybe it’s the same in other places, but it feels more pronounced here.

Despite this sense of place associated with our home county, a great many people have very little notion about why counties exist. Even if an answer to that question can be called to mind – here’s a hint: counties are the local arm of state government – going further to accurately describe the job of a County Commissioner is a bridge way too far for most folks. 

I’ll admit to being squarely in that category for most of my life. Until my former boss, U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis, impressed upon me that county government is the most important level of government, I really had no idea what Commissioners did. Since I took this job, I’ve repeatedly heard Governor Matt Mead say that local government is the heart of all government. All of that is well and good, but what does it mean for agriculture in Wyoming? 

Commissioners are not figureheads for meaningless drawings on a map, and they most certainly are not in a popularity contest despite the high praise from federal and state officials. The fact is, Commissioners are the front lines of government for exactly the things most livestock operations need to be successful, other than good weather and good health. 

For example, if you operate a ranch anywhere in this state, chances are access to your ranch is dependent upon a well-maintained county road. Counties are the proud owners of more than 52 percent of all the road miles in Wyoming. That’s over 14,500 miles of road, and more than 12,000 of those miles are gravel.

Beyond the budget authority vested in County Commissioners to deal with roads and emergency services, etc., in a public lands state like Wyoming, County Commissioners possess authority granted by federal law to actively participate in federal land use planning decisions. This authority – in technical terms called “cooperating agency status” – grants Commissioners the right to a seat at the table with the federal government from the very earliest discussions right up until the final decision is signed. This right is both a blessing and curse.

A “cooperator,” as they are known, can heavily influence the direction of federal land use planning, and that is a true blessing for Wyoming. County Commissioners all across the state are exerting this influence in ways the general public may never know and at levels of engagement that exceeds that of other western states. 

From prairie dogs to raptors to sage grouse, grazing restrictions to wild horse management to range monitoring and off-road vehicle use and mineral development, County Commissioners represent the local population in these decisions. It is an authority not granted to private industry or non-profit groups. It’s a daunting task in these tense times of conflict between the West and our federal land management agencies. Wyoming’s Commissioners are making use of that authority in great numbers, and with great effect.

As much as we might wish it otherwise, this superhuman status doesn’t make the Commissioners superhuman. It is a common misconception that the federal government is required to defer to counties at every turn. That simply isn’t the case. While Commissioners can influence, they cannot write the land use plans exactly as they would wish so long as the federal government continues to own the land. 

This is where the curse comes in. To be effective, Commissioners spend long hours reading thousands of mind-numbing pages of proposals from the federal government. They attend days of tedious meetings with federal agency partners pouring over every word and detail, so they can make informed comments and effectively push back against possible decisions that don’t match up with our way of life here in Wyoming. It’s long hours with no guarantee of success, but most would agree it is worth it.

Here at the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association (WCCA), we strive to help every Commissioner become a better Commissioner for the good of Wyoming, which means providing counties with sound legal and policy analysis so they can effectively represent you. 

We have launched several new initiatives designed to improve the data flowing into the federal decision making process, including an initiative with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to fully understand the socio-economic impact of grazing in Wyoming. 

Ultimately, we need your input to be effective. Never hesitate to reach out to us, or to your County Commissioners, to discuss issues of importance to you, particularly if it relates to federal agency decisions during the land use process. 

Counties are where we live, work and play. Together we must do the difficult work of ensuring the right decisions are made today for the benefit of future generations. They, like us, will have some number between one and 23 that is close to their heart. That’s a big deal.