Allen and Quarberg advocate ‘coordination’ between local and federal governmentsWritten by Jennifer Womack
Allen, a wilderness outfitter and rancher who chairs the Natural Resource Planning Committee (NRPC) in Fremont County, says local governments have a little used tool at their disposal. “Congress recognized that counties have the authority to control local functions and have a real interest in what happens at the local level in terms of tax base, economic viability, social viability, police power, the general welfare of the citizens they represent at a very, small local level.” Allen continues, “Congress then codified local control by expressly granting coordination authority in several federal laws like the Federal Land Management and Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Rangeland Renewable Resources Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and more.
Allen and DeLoyd Quarberg, who is vice chairman of the NRPC in Hot Springs County, believe coordination is the key to local communities having a stronger say in the decisions made on the federally managed lands that surround their communities. In the case of Fremont County, Allen points out that 85 percent of the county’s land mass is comprised of federal lands. “What happens there is vitally important to the people who call Fremont County home,” he says.
With a local land use plan in place, Allen and Quarberg say local governments have the ability to call upon the federal land management agencies to comply with local documents. “We’re not declaring a sagebrush rebellion,” says Allen, “We’re simply using federal statutes that define coordination and recognize the authority counties have in dealing with these federal agencies if they’ve adopted land use plans or they have a planning policy.”
Fremont County’s first attempt at coordination came during the Shoshone Forest Plan Revision. Allen says what made the news were the county’s resolutions opposing wolves and grizzly bears. The bigger story, he says, “It was an expression to the federal government that the federal plans and the planning policies of the county government were inconsistent.”
Since that time Allen says Fremont County’s NRPC has continued working to get federal officials to understand the importance, and legal requirement for, coordination with local governments. “None of the federal agency staff that are on duty now were on duty in the 1970s when these statutes passed. They were, however, working for the government when cooperating agency statutes passed. They understand cooperation, but they don’t understand coordination. They’re starting to come around and we’re starting to assert our legal planning and management authority.”
“The difference between cooperating agency status and coordination,” says Allen, “is that with cooperating agency status the local government has the opportunity to provide economic analysis and data, but the agency retains exclusive decision-making abilities. Under coordination the burden of proof is on the secretary of agriculture or interior, to make their decisions consistent with local government.”
“It puts the local government on a level playing field with the federal government so that those local values get carried through,” says Quarberg. “Without it, you can make your case, but they go back to their office and shut their doors.”
Quarberg says the commissioners in his county haven’t fully grasped coordination yet, but that the nearly 30-member NRPC continues to gather information. Part of the problem, he says, has been federal officials convincing commissioners that “cooperation” is better than “coordination.” He says, “The commissioners see the federal agencies as the experts on this.”
Allen says recognition of the coordination tool could also leave the federal land management agencies better positioned on the many issues they find themselves in court over. As it stands, he says they can claim local involvement based on cooperation, but it’s a weak argument. “Under cooperation agency status you can bring stuff to the table, but under coordination you bring it to the table and it stays there until it’s resolved,” he explains. “They work out the inconsistencies and then present a draft document.”
“It took the wolf and grizzly in Fremont County to slap us up alongside the head so we’d realize it had gone too far,” says Allen of the effort to seek out what they believe to be better tools for local communities. “The federal decisions were inconsistent with what the people of Fremont County wanted.”
Allen’s NRPC is comprised of around 30 people who represent a broad spectrum of the community. Quarberg says an equally diverse group comprised of 22 individuals is meeting in Hot Springs County.
Of Fremont County’s land use plan, Allen says, “We were flexible without specifying numbers. If you had to sum it up, it would be to protect multiple use. We allow for recreational and commercial values. It would be unfair as an advocacy group to characterize our plan as having any one dominant use.”
“The tool is there if counties will utilize it,” says Quarberg. “If they don’t utilize it they won’t have much of an affect on natural resource policy in their counties, not as much as they would if they used coordination.”