Providing an education on coordination
Coordination has become somewhat of a buzz word in Crook County since Oregon Wild introduced its highly controversial National Recreation Area proposal.
Resistance to the conservation organization's plan for the Ochoco National Forest birthed a citizen-led effort to draft a county natural resource plan, a document that would establish policy on public lands within local borders. And its success hinged on a concept known as coordination.
Last Wednesday evening, residents and local leaders were invited to a public forum where two experts on coordination, both in knowledge and in practice, educated visitors on the how the coordination works and how to set the table for it locally.
Karen Budd-Falen, an attorney from Wyoming, joined Modoc County official Sean Curtis to provide their insight and field questions from a community still unsure about the new public lands buzz word.
Budd-Falen took the microphone first. A member of Donald Trump's transition team, she began by pointing out that the new administration seems interested in pushing decisions back down toward local control.
"I think pushing decision-making down to the local level is a really fabulous thing if local governments are prepared to participate in the decisions," said Budd-Falen.
Coordination, she said, first emerged as part of the National Environmental Policy Act, which was enacted in 1969. It is referenced as a federal requirement and mandates that local governments must be involved in public lands decisions. But there is a catch. The local government in question must make an effort to get involved and prepare for that involvement ahead of time with a natural resource plan.
"It requires consideration of the environment. It requires consideration of the custom and culture," Budd-Falen said. "The problem I have seen is when the federal agencies start to describe the custom and culture and they don't have input from the local government, they get it completely wrong."
Budd-Falen therefore urged the community members in attendance to develop a plan and make sure includes key components and ample data. It must document the custom and culture of the county, detailing what resources the community depends on why adverse impact to them would cause harm. Secondly, she stressed that the plan must include information about the local economy and tie that information back to the importance of natural resources.
"NEPA requires the consideration of alternatives and it requires mitigation from harm," she stated.
Once that plan is created, one that Budd-Falen cautioned should be heavy on data and broad in its requirements, the county would have a document that sets the table for a consistency review.
"A consistency review is a federal statute that says if a local land use plan or policy is in place, the federal government's decision has to be as consistent as practicable with the local land use plan, as long as the local land use plan does not violate federal statute ... The federal statutes are so broad that it is actually not that hard to write a local land use plan that is completely in line with the federal statutes, but still protects who you are."
Another caveat of coordination, according to Budd-Falen, is that it is not actually defined in the National Forest Management Act. She therefore recommends that local governments define their coordination process through the land use plan. This might mean meeting with federal agencies once a month, or once every couple of weeks, to discuss land use decisions. And she advises against fostering an adversarial relationship with the Forest Service, BLM or other agencies.
"It's a dialogue and a relationship," she stressed. "Coordination is not a way to go around beating people over the head and saying you are going to do what I want."
Sean Curtis, who spoke next, backed those sentiments.
"The most important thing you can take away from a discussion about coordination is it is really conflict resolution," he said.
A public official in Modoc County, Calif., Curtis has participated in coordination efforts throughout the past 20 years, and he shared some success stories with the audience.
He pointed out that about 9,000 people live in Modoc County, an area similar to Crook County with a high desert landscape and 75 percent ownership by the federal government.
"If this little county (Modoc) can do it," he said of coordination, "any county can do it."
Like Budd-Falen, Curtis stressed the importance of a land-use plan that defines county policies, and he emphasized the importance of taking an active role in public lands decisions once that county policy is in place. He noted that agencies like the Forest Service will not act on county policies unless the local government takes action.
Curtis also urged locals not to get caught up in semantics. Whether or not local governments and federal agencies working together is technically labeled coordination is not critical, he said. Instead, it is the end result that matters.
"Whatever tool you are using, the goal is to resolve the conflict," he said. "If you are attempting to coordinate, don't ever expect the agency to tell you that's what you are doing."
This theme continued to emerge as Curtis recalled success stories where the local government persuaded land-use agencies to act on their local land-use policies, and while answering audience questions.
On more than one occasion, a member of the audience asked Budd-Falen and Curtis to compare collaboration and coordination. This distinction often arose during the 2016 election cycle when coordination proponents spoke against the efforts of a Ochoco Forest collaborative co-convened by Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe and former Crook County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren.
Some claimed that coordination would compel federal agencies to give the county equal standing on land use decisions while collaboration gave counties little if any power in the decision-making process.
Budd-Falen acknowledged that coordination does have the distinction of appearing in federal statute, but stressed that collaboration should not be discarded as an option if it is showing any measurable progress.
"I don't ever think it should be one versus the other," she said. "I think that these work in concert together."
Curtis agreed, saying it is what you get in the end that is important, regardless of what you call it.
"There is a whole list of tools available for you to work with the agencies with," he said. "Coordination — maybe it's the umbrella over them or maybe it's the bag the rest of the tools are put in."
Another question raised by local leaders was whether or not the adoption of a natural resource plan could result in legal action. The prior county court chose not to adopt a natural resource plan created by citizens last year out concern it might prompt litigation.
Budd-Falen did not believe the plan would cause a federal agency to sue the county, provided the plan did not violate federal statute and was developed in an open public process. She did not, however, say the same for environmentalists or other third party opponents of the plan.
But Curtis went on to say that existence of a natural resource plan and a positive working relationship with federal land use agencies would make a judge more inclined to support a county should a lawsuit arise.
The Crook County Natural Resource Plan's political action committee is still planning to present its once-rejected land use document to the new Crook County Court. The governing body is now comprised of two new members and a remaining member who initially supported adoption of the document. The date for that meeting is not yet set.