Locals tell lawmakers that federal agencies ignore them

By Phil Taylor | 04/29/2016 07:51 AM EDT

A word slip by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) yesterday hinted at why the House Natural Resources Committee’s Republicans are frustrated with federal land management.

A word slip by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) yesterday hinted at why the House Natural Resources Committee’s Republicans are frustrated with federal land management.

Thompson, like others on the panel, worries decisions at the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management over logging, grazing, mining, energy development, roads and recreation are being unduly influenced by outside special interest groups rather than the local communities that feel the greatest impact of those decisions.

"Do the local folks who have everything to lose, is their input weighed more [heavily] than some outside activist group that may be 1,000 miles away?" he asked Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon. She responded that there is no weighting system.


"Folks on the left coast that — the West Coast, sorry. That, uh, that was a slip of the tongue," Thompson said. "Is there a rational why we do that?"

Thompson’s concern is part of the impetus behind the draft bill heard yesterday by the Subcommittee on Federal Lands known as the "Locally Elected Officials Cooperating with Agencies in Land Management Act." The legislation, which as of now has no sponsor, seeks to "rebalance the relationship between federal agencies and the localities directly impacted by land management decisions," according to a memo from committee Republicans.

It’s aimed primarily at Western communities where federal lands make up at least one-third of the land base. It would require that federal lands officials be willing to attend local government meetings to update elected officials on land management activities and respond to local concerns. Federal officials would be required to coordinate with local governments on decisions including forest management or road closures.

It would also require the agencies to post staff in a particular location for at least three years, a provision that appears aimed at getting decisionmakers more embedded in the communities that their decisions affect.

The bill took heat from Democrats, conservationists, and BLM and Forest Service officials who called it overly burdensome and said it would restrict use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The measure was endorsed by county commissioners in Nevada and California who said their economies and public lands have been harmed by shortsighted federal decisions that could have been improved with better local input.

"Although these lands are owned by the federal government, the effects of poor management are disproportionately felt by those living within the boundaries of a national forest or a national park," said panel Chairman Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). "The most common complaint I hear from locally elected officials in my district is that they’re rarely consulted, rarely respected and often bypassed by federal land managers whose decisions directly affect their communities and the local economy."

Those decisions include road closures, grazing restrictions, the removal of tourist amenities, forest mismanagement, and friction between Forest Service law enforcement officials and county sheriffs, McClintock said.

Sherri Brennan, a supervisor of Tuolumne County, Calif., said poor coordination with local officials led the Forest Service to pass shoddy land-use plans in 1991 and 2001 that affect the Stanislaus National Forest. The plans resulted in tepid timber sales that have allowed the forest to grow dense with trees, setting the stage for the Rim Fire of 2013, which burned through a quarter-million acres and was California’s third largest, she said.

The bill is rooted in an "unprecedented need for improved coordination," Brennan said.

Jerrie Tipton, a commissioner in Mineral County, Nev., said requiring federal employees to serve minimum three-year posts would keep them accountable. A provision in the bill requiring federal managers to notify local officials about the opportunity to be a "cooperating agency" will help local communities shape decisions. Currently, counties lack the resources to sift through federal publications to identify potentially important decisions, she said.

Yet Democrats and an official from Snohomish County, Wash., took exception to provisions in the bill that would limit use of LWCF, which is the government’s main program for acquiring new federal lands. The Senate last week passed a bill with strong bipartisan support to permanently reauthorize LWCF, though there are major critics of the program in the House, particularly on the committee.

Under the draft bill, parcels acquired under LWCF would need to abut existing federal lands on at least 75 percent of their borders. At least 85 percent of the acreage acquired would need to be in the eastern United States.

Those provisions, which seek to restrict the federal footprint in the West, are consistent with language in committee Chairman Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) draft legislation from last fall to reform LWCF (Greenwire, Nov. 5, 2015).

Yet Hans Dunshee, a councilmember for Snohomish County, said the language would restrict the government’s ability to purchase riverside parcels that are not already surrounded by federal lands, but which offer important access for anglers. In addition, he took exception to a provision that requires the agencies give "considerable deference" to local communities before purchasing private lands.

While such purchases take the lands off county tax rolls, Dunshee said commissioners should not interfere with a citizen’s ability to sell his or her property, regardless of whom the buyer is. Restrictions on acquiring federal lands — which Dunshee characterized as an economic driver — "would put my county at a disadvantage," he said.

Panel ranking member Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) said the restrictions could hurt her constituents, too. They would hamper efforts to prevent harmful development in the Merrimack River watershed, a critical drinking water source, because there are not enough existing federal lands to meet the 75 percent threshold, she said.

Weldon concurred, saying the restrictions would limit the Forest Service’s ability to find parcels in the East that are eligible for preservation under LWCF because of the prevalence of private lands.

Karen Mouritsen, deputy assistant director for energy, minerals and realty management at BLM, said the LWCF restrictions in the draft bill are "unnecessary and unduly burdensome" and are "strongly opposed" by the Interior Department.

Weldon and Mouritsen both emphasized that collaboration and communication with local communities are already core obligations at the agencies.

"We’ve demonstrated a commitment at every level of our organization throughout the country and fully understand the critical role that local government agencies play in land stewardship," Weldon said.

Both agencies have a liaison to the National Association of Counties. Mouritsen said the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, BLM’s core statute, requires it to contact local governments and ask them if they want to be a cooperating agency for major decisions. "We take that obligation very seriously," she said.

Yesterday, more than a dozen national environmental groups wrote a letter to the committee expressing "strong opposition" to the draft.

"The bill preempts federal oversight of our nation’s public lands by adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy to management decisions while rolling back 50 years of successful community conservation by imposing arbitrary and capricious limits on important community-supported land protection," the groups wrote.