County land use plans set the stage | TSLN.com

County land use plans set the stage

Rebecca Colnar
for Tri-State Livestock News

Making agencies accountable with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act

While communities within or near federal lands often feel helpless about how the land is managed, they don't have to. They have the right to be included in the planning and execution of the management of that land, particularly as it affects their neighborhood and neighbors.

One rancher who has worked in his community to create a land use plan is Tom DePuydt from Saco, Montana. Thanks to some residents who banded together, Phillips County now has a comprehensive land use plan in place.

"Our county has close to 50 percent federal land, so of course what the federal government does with public lands has a lot of economic impact," notes DePuydt.

Originally, a group formed called the Montana Community Preservation Alliance in 2010 to deal with the BLM's "Treasured Landscapes" paper. The group invited then BLM Director Bob Abbey to Malta to discuss it. Later, the group merged with the newly formed Phillips County Farm Bureau.

"It's important to have a community effort to work with the federal government," says DePuydt. "To make this plan, a few people went to our county commissioners who then designated a committee. This included people from all walks of life–farmers, ranchers, a veterinarian, the gas company. In the end, that group made a resource plan. I believe a lot of counties have plans, but this wasn't a growth plan, it was a resource plan."

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The Phillips County group took a lot of time and effort in making their local land use plan. They included history and information about their culture including the history of mining and history of livestock with plenty of data and information on their conservation efforts.

The Phillips County Farm Bureau President, who also serves on the board of directors for the Montana Farm Bureau, points out that by federal statute under the Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976 (FLMPA), federal agencies must coordinate with the local plans. "Agencies need to sit down and resolve the differences between federal and local plans. The BLM Land Use Plans talk about cooperating entities. That includes things like the county governments, conservation districts and so forth. What it's not, however, is coordinating. Coordinating means that by law, those federal agencies must work within the local land use plan. This is where education comes in. You need to get your county commissioners on board so they have an understanding of this process."

DePuydt notes that many times the federal regulations will cover up the fact that the agency personnel is required by law to meet with the counties and come to an agreement. "People aren't familiar with the coordination process that forces the government agencies to reconcile the differences between the federal and local plans."

Although agencies are required to have a comment period, DePudyt says it's not enough. "Local governments and citizens can comment; however, it's critical to force these federal agencies into meeting, literally, at the table. That meeting is public record and will be recorded. Questions can be asked and agency personnel must give answers. It's important that if there is a problem that surfaces, ask them to resolve it. This coordination process puts the federal agencies equal with the local government. Local governments are not subordinate, but equal. It won't put our plan over their plan, but it forces them to resolve their differences at a table, not through comments."

Putting together a comprehensive land use plan—and then a meeting with the federal agency personnel, takes time and effort to find a variety of people. "Our local officials are overworked as it is, and now we are putting this extra burden on them. It's good to inform county commissioners about the land use plan even before they run for office."

He recommends if possible putting a little extra money in the county budget to develop a plan and have money to train commissioners. Phillips County Farm Bureau/Montana Community Preservation Alliance received a Montana Farm Bureau Foundation grant to sponsor a coordination workshop and invited county commissioners and conservation district personnel from the region.

The rancher suggests striking as soon as you hear of an upcoming "scoping meeting," which comes before the public comment period. "The land use plan of the federal government is reviewed every 10 years. However, they like to add or change things. If there is a change in the federal plan—say they want to identify a wilderness area—before the comment period, they have a scoping meeting. That's when the county government needs to get involved and start resolving those differences. The feds feet should be held to fire to resolve those differences."

"In our county, we have a lot of land use issues such as the Upper Missouri River National Monument; there are wilderness study areas where they want to add more wilderness characteristics—it's important to have a land use plan in place and ensure the federal plan is consistent with the local plan. Keep in mind that your commissioners may say they are already a cooperating agency with the BLM and Forest Service, but that doesn't have any teeth."

He admits it's difficult to get the ball rolling, and someone has to dedicate more time to the process of educating the commissioners on the federal government's responsibility under the FLPMA. Mark Tubbs serves as chair of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Public Lands Committee. The Edgemont rancher says it's very important to be involved in the entire process of working with agencies overseeing public lands. "Attend grazing association meetings and speak with Forest Service employees to understand the priorities of the agency. It's good to periodically monitor the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) websites to keep informed. Be active in any commenting period from the beginning of any federal agency planning."

It's essential to be at the table, he says. "Meet with the BLM and/or the Forest Service regularly to discuss priorities," Tubbs advises. "However, when the agency is unresponsive to the concerns of the allotment holder, copy your correspondence to your members of Congress. Often Congressional representatives can meet with the agencies and get results."

Tubbs indicates the new administration has had a positive impact on those federal agencies forming a working relationship with allotment holders. "Keep in mind, however, that many land management plans are pre-existing and have an expiration date. For instance, there is an administrative policy that was written about the grasslands in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming in 2000 and needs to be re-written. It included putting prairie dogs on the Endangered Species List, and now it's very difficult to get that language out of there. The plan has technically expired, so it's time to provide new research and statistics."

He reiterates that often a decision has already been made before the comment period is even requested. "Still, don't give up. Attending scoping meetings and participating in the comment period can be somewhat effective, but it's essential to include your county commissioners and federal representatives in the process. When you get your county commissioners involved at the state level, they have standing in federal court," he notes, "When they wrote the National Grasslands Plan in 2000, they had the idea to make the ground look 'pre-European.' Well, we're here, and we have to make sure that we are written into the next plan."

Being actively involved in forming a county plan as well as being a part of the national plans, is essential according to Randy Parker, vice president of national governmental affairs for Utah Farm Bureau. "There is so much going on with federal agencies that farmers and ranchers don't have the capability of keeping up with what's coming down the pike. It creates uncertainty. Our counties (in Utah) have land use plans which force the agencies to honor what those local plans are and who those local people are. It's very important to have those plans in place and force those agencies to work with the local county officials."

Parker points out that, regretfully, submitted comments may be ignored. "When the BLM Planning 2.0, was initiated, Utah Farm Bureau, our members and many other concerned organizations and people submitted comments that BLM 2.0 was way beyond what the BLM should have the authority to do. The feds ignored us, and we had to put in a Congressional Review Act to remove it. We are now going through the same process with Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS). We hope at least now with a new administration we have a window of opportunity to influence what these agencies do."

Parker says two forest plans in Utah are currently slated for revision. "They have been in place since 1986. In the 80s, we didn't have as many dynamics pulling the strings of these agencies. Multiple use, including grazing, was front and center," Parker explains. "Today you have the non-use advocates, non-grazing sportsmen, recreationists and more wildlife. The dynamics have changed but ranchers don't seem to dial into it. The truth is that in the 1980s, they really didn't have to. They historically trusted the Forest Service since it's an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now the reality is the Forest Service could be worse for the future of grazing than the BLM is. The question today is: How do we convince ranchers they need to be a part of the process and participate in an aggressive way?"

During the Obama Administration, Parker wrote comments on BLM 2.0, WOTUS and "every forest plan that came up, and I don't believe anything we put on the table at that time was incorporated into those plans. Was it an act in futility? To some degree, but you can't stop. Currently we have a good opportunity to change the dynamics. Maybe now we can submit the information and it will be heard."

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