Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds

An obscure provision in two environmental laws is the weapon of choice in a bureaucratic Sagebrush Rebellion.

  • Crowds gather at the Roswell International Air Center, New Mexico, in 2011, to protest a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. American Stewards claims their coordination strategy influenced the agency not to list the reptile in 2012.

    Mark Wilson, Roswell Daily Record/AP Photo
 

Suzy Foss became a Ravalli County, Montana, commissioner during the 2010 Tea Party wave. Sixty-five with a Sarah Palin vibe — stylish glasses, brown hair and bangs — Foss raises Arabian horses and border collies on a ranch abutting the Bitterroot National Forest, which takes up three-quarters of the county. Foss blames the federal government for the post-’90s local decline of timber sales and grazing permits, as well as the rise of wildfires and wolves, and says locals deserve more power over land management. “This is brought on us by people who mean well, but they’ve killed the forests of America,” Foss says. “They’ve murdered them as deliberately as if I took a machine gun out and went and shot someone in a crowded mall.”

So in 2011, Foss asked American Stewards of Liberty for help. The Texas-based nonprofit trains local governments to use “coordination,” an often-overlooked provision in two key environmental laws that govern land management: the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Forest Management Act. FLPMA specifically directs the Bureau of Land Management to “coordinate the land use inventory, planning, and management activities” with states, local governments and tribes as well as with their own management programs to “provide for meaningful public involvement” when developing rules and plans. The National Forest Management Act includes similar language for the Forest Service.

According to American Stewards Executive Director Margaret Byfield, coordination means that federal agencies must involve counties and states in planning and give them an “equal position at the negotiating table” for decision-making. “It is,” she says, “pretty straightforward.” The nonprofit says over 100 local governments have invoked coordination to fight land-use restrictions since 2006.

Many groups, including environmentalists, try to influence land management with scientific research and alternative management proposals, but policy experts say that the coordination movement has a distinctly anti-federal government flavor — a Sagebrush Rebellion in bureaucratic clothing, with links to state efforts to take over federal lands. Coordination proponents are “essentially arguing a county would have veto authority on federal land decisions,” says Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana. And federal officials, who interpret “coordination” very differently, fear it’s stoking more conflicts than it resolves by misinforming locals.

But though critics, including federal land managers, may dismiss American Stewards’ interpretation of coordination, it’s gaining traction among state and U.S. lawmakers and Western governors. “It has no legal basis, but it’s as much about trying to frame things politically,” Nie says.These proposals are pushing way, way outside the mainstream.”

 

Byfield’s strategy is inspired in part by the long, acrimonious legal battles waged by her father, Wayne Hage, a southern Nevada rancher and one of the West’s early Sagebrush Rebels. Through the 1980s and ’90s, Hage sued the feds for control of his public-land grazing leases and water. After his death, the court upheld his property-rights claims and awarded his estate $4.2 million.

Back in Hage’s day, leaders in rural Western counties with large public-land bases passed resolutions claiming “county supremacy” and ownership of federal lands. Courts rejected those, but the idea lives on: When Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy urged county sheriffs to disarm BLM officials last spring, he was waving the banner of county supremacy.

Byfield, however, says coordination is different. She learned the strategy from Fred Kelly Grant, the Hages’ litigation chairman, who was president of American Stewards in 2006. Grant has promoted coordination in speeches to local governments while railing against the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a sustainable-development initiative some conservatives view as an international conspiracy against private property rights.

Counties typically pay American Stewards $1,500 for an initial daylong training, plus travel expenses. Foss says she and other citizens footed the cost in Ravalli County, but other local governments use taxpayer money for the training and additional consultation, and some rack up sizeable bills. Custer County, Idaho, had paid American Stewards more than $23,000 as of August 2014, an HCN open-records request revealed, and Garfield County, Colorado, has paid the group more than $26,000 since 2012.

The training encourages a local government to invoke “coordinating status,” often through a resolution, and then establish a citizen advisory committee to develop natural resource policies or contract for scientific research, sometimes through American Stewards. Before Foss left office in December after losing a primary, she and her fellow Ravalli County commissioners drafted a county natural-resources policy calling for more grazing, logging, irrigation and forest-road access than is outlined in local national forest plans, and wrote another policy for higher wolf-hunting quotas and longer hunting and trapping seasons. Commissioners shared these plans with the Forest Service, but their impact is unclear, since the agency maintains that counties’ role remains advisory.

Following their own 2013 training, Colorado’s Garfield County commissioners hired consultants to study greater sage grouse. They claim to have found four times as much regional grouse habitat as the BLM, and say that the bird — which is being considered for endangered species listing — doesn’t need federal protection.

American Stewards considers the oil-rich Permian Basin on the Texas-New Mexico border its greatest success. The group introduced coordination to local governments there in 2011, and say the resulting locally funded science forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to back off an endangered species listing proposal for the dunes sagebrush lizard in 2012. “We can honestly say that had it not been for what the eight counties and one soil and water district did using our coordination strategy,” Dan Byfield, Margaret’s husband and American Stewards’ CEO, wrote on the group’s website, “the lizard would have been listed.”

Fish and Wildlife and others, however, credit voluntary conservation agreements covering hundreds of thousands of acres of lizard habitat on public and private lands in the region. Still, watchdogs and environmentalists charge that the decision was unscientific and politically motivated. The agency’s then-Texas administrator even lodged an official scientific integrity complaint, and, after he was reassigned indefinitely, filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint. He has since retired.

 

Federal managers acknowledge that they meet more frequently with local officials in counties that have passed coordination resolutions and drafted resource policies — but not because they’re required to heed those plans. “It’s fostered dialogue and communications, and that’s usually beneficial,” says Charles Mark, supervisor of central Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest, which includes Custer and other coordination counties.

The BLM has even teamed up with American Stewards to host coordination trainings. “Five years ago, they would say there was no requirement in the law for them to (participate),” says Margaret Byfield. “That’s definitely changed.” But Cynthia Moses-Nedd, the BLM’s intergovernmental liaison, says the agency wants to clarify what coordination is and isn’t: “We’ve had to dispel some myths.”

Some federal staffers question how successful that’s been. Dave Campbell, a recently retired Bitterroot National Forest district ranger, hesitated to meet with Ravalli commissioners about coordination or the county resource policy for fear it would lend credibility to the county’s position. “They took that one word out of (federal laws) and defined it to say the county gets first shot at planning,” he says. “It was confusing to the public.” Adds Mark, “At times, I think (local officials) think they’ve got some sort of special status, which they don’t.”

And while officials generally encourage more research and data, environmentalists and others question the objectivity of county-funded research, given that American Stewards and many rural officials oppose most endangered species listings and federal land-use restrictions.

Garfield County, for example, paid a scientist who has also worked for the oil and gas industry — which has a lot to lose if sage grouse are listed — $35,000 to help develop its sage-grouse conservation plan. And meeting transcripts show that Byfield participated in county sage grouse strategy calls involving consultants and industry officials.

The BLM’s draft sage grouse management plan, released last August, included Garfield County’s grouse plan and habitat maps in its appendices. BLM spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo says local governments had “significant influence,” but that final decisions “remain the BLM’s to make.”

 

Regardless of coordination’s on-the-ground effectiveness, its principles are gaining ground in other ways. The Western Governors’ Association is stumping for “expanded, meaningful opportunities for states to comment, participate, or take the lead” on endangered species decisions. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, R, signed a new law this March that requires counties to develop local resource-management plans, partly as “a basis for coordinating with the federal government.” Montana also passed a law in 2013 to ease coordination efforts and claims.

Even D.C. is hearing demands for greater local authority: Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, R, introduced a bill this March that would amend the Endangered Species Act to mandate that federal agencies include data from states, local governments and tribes in scientific analyses. The bill would also require agencies to provide states with all relevant studies before decisions are made. (The House passed a similar bill in 2014, largely along party lines.) The legislation would essentially provide legal grounding in line with American Stewards’ version of coordination and “something close to equal footing” for counties and states on endangered species decisions, says Jake Li, Defenders of Wildlife’s director of endangered species conservation.

“We’re all in favor of having local governments and the people closest to these landscapes be a serious part of the decision-making process, ” says Jessica Goad, advocacy director at the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. “But that changes when it comes to the agenda behind ‘coordination.’ A lot of these policies shrouded in the term are undermining the role of the federal government. We’re seeing public lands as a vehicle for achieving very anti-federal government goals.”

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