'Wise use' plans abhor change

 

Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.

Cody, Wyo. - This county on the eastern border of Yellowstone National Park has been so sparsely settled, the prospect of a little more than 100 people moving in to work a gold mine helped set off a planning emergency.

Anticipating growth linked to the proposed gold mine near the park, and responding to the land boom that's taking hold here, last year the county commissioners imposed a moratorium on subdivisions. They then hired a new planner to develop a countywide comprehensive plan.

Now, with significant citizen involvement, the county has a draft plan that would take some beginner steps to keep the county's private valleys uncluttered.

But surprising opposition has emerged. Some people who helped draft the plan have mounted a last-minute campaign one planning commissioner calls an attempted "hijack" of the process.

Opponents, most of them members of the Meeteetse and Park County "multiple-use" associations, are primarily ranchers and loggers who feel pinched by federal regulation of public lands. They say the county's plan is also too restrictive - in its regulation of private land - and they want it toned down.

The associations circulated a newsletter advocating land-use plans modeled on one adopted in 1991 by Catron County, N.M. More than 40 Western counties have adopted the "custom and culture" model, asserting the right to decide timber, grazing and mining levels on federal lands.

Park County is unlikely to adopt a Catron County-type plan, but the dynamics of its planning battle reverberate throughout the West. The counties adopting "custom and culture" plans largely abhor any form of planning for change and hope somehow to seal off their communities from outside forces.

In a sense, both the wise users and those who favor conventional planning say they pursue the same goal: preservation of existing society and land uses. But the pro-planning forces would do this through regulation and the wise use forces through a total lack of local, state or, expecially, federal regulation.

For example, while Catron County-type "planning" demands that federal lands be open to logging and grazing, those counties won't zone their private lands to protect ranch and forest lands from subdividing. Although a federal judge in Boundary County, Idaho, close to Canada, recently ruled unconstitutional a Catron County-type plan passed by commissioners there, dozens of counties in the West continue to consider adopting such plans (HCN, 5/22/93).

"I can't understand why a county would spend its precious resources on these unenforceable and illegal plans when it could be doing legitimate land-use plans," says Kathy Kilmer, a staffer for The Wilderness Society in Denver. "You can't just dig a hole and hide your heads in it."

But Aaron Harp, a rural sociologist with the University of Idaho, says the dug-heels reaction of these communities is understandable.

"The ranchers, miners and loggers view themselves as an indigenous culture, as second wave natives," says Harp. "To them, newcomers are carrying out a cultural genocide."

Some mad, some mellower

In Idaho, stubborn resistance to planning has reared its head in two of the counties Harp has worked with, Custer and Lemhi, both of which are more than 90 percent public land.

Yet the campaign by people loosely identified as part of the "wise use/multiple use" movement played out very differently in the two counties.

In Custer County, where some ranchers say they're being squeezed out by environmental regulations and newcomers, residents raised the banner of RAGE - Rebellion Against Government Excess. A leader of the RAGE group, state GOP Rep. Lenore Barrett of Challis, tells her people not to compromise.

"You know, your back is against the wall," Barrett told 300 ranchers at the first RAGE gathering last year. "The question is, are you ready to come out fighting?"

Barrett says, if the federal government backed off from raising grazing fees and enforcing other regulations, ranchers could stay in business. Then local governments wouldn't have to step in to protect ranches from being turned into ranchettes that serve the newcomers.

In neighboring Lemhi County, a local group, Grassroots for Multiple Use, wanted the county to follow the rebellious custom-and-culture protective model of planning. As a wider spectrum of residents got involved in planning, though, sentiment moved more toward cooperation. Ranchers who live along the Lemhi River wound up working with federal and state agencies to improve salmon habitat and restore historical salmon runs.

While Custer County has put very little into planning for growth on private lands, Lemhi County has adopted a comprehensive plan to increase control over new developments. Kelly Anglin, a member of the county's planning commision, says, "Part of our goal is, we're trying to protect a Western rural way of life."

Says Dave McFarland, a rancher and co-chairman of Lemhi County's land-use planning effort, "We're trying to come up with our best bet for the whole ecosystem."

Steamrollered

Here in Park County, Wyo., the mood has shifted from cooperation to confrontation. "Multiple-use" advocates packed a planning commission meeting in July and called for the county to hire a consultant and revamp the comprehensive plan that had been drafted after months of public input. The sole environmentalist attending that meeting, Lamar Empey, a retired professor of criminology who sits on the board of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, says he was flabbergasted.

"I stood up and said their suggestions were an insult to all the people who have worked for months on the new plan," says Empey, who was a member of a 75-member planning task force that included environmentalists, wise-use proponents and every perspective in between. "We achieved a remarkable consensus, and none of us got everything we wanted."

Kathleen Jachowski, a spokeswoman for a local lumber company and member of the Meeteetse and Park County "multiple-use" associations, says she doesn't want to waste the months of public effort, either. But she says the draft plan is filled with the personal perspectives of County Planner Mark Sawyer, and the county should hire a new planner who better understands Wyoming.

"Mark's only been here a year," says Jachowski, who moved to the state nine years ago. "If there's anybody who is an outsider here it's Mark Sawyer. It's too easy to put on a cowboy hat and jeans and say, "I'm with you." "

As for deciding the fate of private ranchlands, Jachowski says ranchers and farmers shouldn't bear the burden of providing aesthetically pleasing open country for newcomers. She opposes language in the new plan which says the county should promote the formation of a land trust to protect open space.

Planner Sawyer, speaking in the quiet tones of someone in a tight spot, says he understands why ranchers and loggers feel threatened by the rapid changes affecting the county. But "this community has far broader concerns than just protecting commodity use of public lands," he says.

Sawyer says multiple-use supporters fail to see that by resisting regulations on private lands they are actually accelerating change.

"Their attitude toward newcomers is "We'll sell you land and take your money but don't vote or express your opinion," " says Sawyer. Democracy doesn't work like that, he says. The former Californians and urbanites who buy land from ranchers will vote, says Sawyer, and they don't believe grazing and logging should be the dominant uses of public lands.

But the multiple-use/wise-use advocates' organizing abilities may keep them one step ahead of change, at least for awhile. In an August county commissioner election, they voted two of their own onto the five-person commission. One, Beryl Churchill, ran ads in the local paper saying the planning process was "rotten."

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Careful planning avoids takings

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