From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 2 - April 10, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Empowering counties on federal lands

by Cat Urbigkit

More than 35 citizens from throughout western Wyoming gathered in Kemmerer Monday afternoon to learn how county governments can work with federal land-management agencies.

The county em-powerment workshop was one of a series hosted by the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation in cooperation with the Wyoming De-partment of Agriculture, State Planning Coordinator's Office and the Budd-Falen Law Office of Cheyenne. Attending the session were representatives of county commissions, the Wyoming Legislature, conservation districts and citizens from Sweetwater, Lincoln, Uinta and Sublette counties.

Karen Henry introduced the program, stating that counties have the opportunity to write county land-use plans for federal lands within their jurisdictions. If counties fail to do so, Henry said, such counties "leave their citizens unprotected and unprepared" for impacts of federal agency action that could "lock up the future of Wyoming."

Henry said local people should take action now, because "it is never good to allow out-of-state environmentalists ... to determine Wyoming's destiny."

Henry said environmentalists want federal lands protected "in a way that not even nature intended ... in a natural state that in fact we aren't sure ever existed."

Henry noted that although environmental groups "are screaming that any forest management will destroy our forests forever," land managers must take action to address the social and economic impacts to citizens and communities of federal decisions.

"Federal lands touch every aspect of our lives in the West," attorney Marc Stimpert said. He said although local governments are granted special rights of participation in evaluating federal agency action, few counties have asserted those rights.

"These laws have been on the books for 20, 25 years," Stimpert said. "It's just now we're getting counties to stand up and start enforcing them."

Stimpert, of the Budd-Falen Law Office in Cheyenne, said environmental groups have learned to use federal natural-resource laws to their advantage, even managing to halt logging in certain areas. Stimpert said when people ask him how something like that could happen, he responds, "Because you let them.

"You people who live here have just as many rights as the environmentalists," Stimpert said. "In fact, county commissions have even more rights than environmental groups."

The difference, Stimpert said, is: "They're educated. They're informed about what's going on."

Federal law requires federal agencies to coordinate their planning efforts with state and local planning processes, Stimpert said. Local governments can adopt county land-use plans to set county policy on how federal lands should be managed, as well as addressing specific resources on those lands.

"You have that right and you should avail yourself of it," Stimpert said.

"A county land-use plan is not zoning," Stimpert said. "You can't zone federal land. A county land-use plan is also not a veto power. The federal agency still has the discretion to veto ... but you can have significant input into that decision."

Grant Stumbough of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture pointed out that now is a good time for counties to develop their land-use plans, since all federal management plans in the state are due for revision within the next three to five years. The difference will be that local governments could take a proactive role, rather than simply reacting once a federal proposal is issued.

Stimpert said federal agencies are required to review the county plan and policy as it considers management actions, and has to reconcile any conflicts between federal and local plans, to the extent possible.

Other avenues for county involvement in federal decision-making include provisions for becoming a joint lead agency in the preparation of an environmental impact statement, or cooperating agency status.

"If you don't participate, it's not the agency's fault," Stimpert said. "If you don't assert your rights, what I'm saying is you may lose them."

"If you don't participate and raise the issues, legal, scientific or factual, according to agency process, you might not have the right to sue," Stimpert said.

Stimpert concluded his presentation with the following advice: "Stay informed. Know your rights. Participate in decisions, create the record, and be prepared to litigate if necessary.

"If you don't start now, you're going to lose your way of life," Stimpert said. "Do as much as you can, but you've got to start somewhere."

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