County Court rejects plan with expectation PAC will submit it as a comp plan amendment

JASON CHANEY - The Crook County Court takes testimony during Tuesday's meeting.

If the Crook County Court is going to approve a natural resources plan, it will have to follow a full land use process.

The governing body voted two to one to reject the existing Crook County Natural Resources Plan with the expectation that members of the citizen-led political action committee who drafted the document will submit it as an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan.

“I can’t accept this today. We would have to make changes that would get us to a point where we didn’t have in it liability to our county,” said Commissioner Ken Fahlgren. “I don’t want to have us in lawsuits over things or feel that we are creating a policy that is the opposite of other policies that we have. So I don’t see any other way than going through the land use process.”

County Judge Mike McCabe agreed, noting that Baker County, which has already adopted a natural resources plan, had to go the same route.

“Every county that does this is going to have to do it,” he remarked.

Commissioner Seth Crawford, who voted against rejection of the plan and pushing it through the land use process, feels the plan has widespread community support and should see approval.

“To me, there has clearly been a lot of public input on this,” he said. “I think this is a great opportunity to give them a voice.”

The plan dictates how public lands will be managed locally and covers a variety of topics including wildfire suppression, grazing, logging, wild horse policy and more. Tuesday’s meeting was called after concerns were raised that the plan, as written, might result in future legal troubles for the county.

The nearly three-hour session included testimony from representatives of Ochoco National Forest, the Prineville Bureau of Land Management District and Oregon Department of Forestry as well as the Association of Oregon Counties and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Members of the Natural Resources Plan PAC and the general public were also invited to speak, and two letters from stakeholders were read during the session.

One such letter, submitted by Baker County Commission Chair Bill Harvey, urged court members to approve the plan.

“In the mid-1970s, Congress mandated that all federal agencies engage in a coordination process to provide local governments a meaningful seat at the negotiating table with federal agencies,” he wrote. “In addition, Congress recognized that local government must have a position in planning and policymaking that is superior to that of the general public … The coordination process is a win-win process for the federal and local governments by allowing the working out of differences in the planning stages instead of going to court.”

Another, written by Michael Blumm, a professor of law at Lewis and Clark Law School, sought to discourage adoption of the plan on the basis it will cause legal problems for the county down the road.

“My hope is that you will decide that adopting such a plan without a careful legal review of your authorities will not only waste county resources, but lead to unnecessary confrontations with the federal land managers and ultimately expensive litigation in which the county has little or no chance of prevailing,” Blumm wrote. “Although the federal land management statutes require coordination with equivalent county land plans, they neither require consistency nor consent and the applicable forest service regulations expressly say so.”

Speakers representing the state and federal land agencies suggested that the plan was unnecessary because existing laws already require them to work with counties on land use decisions that impact their jurisdiction.

“Under the National Forest Management Act and its implementing regulations, the Forest Service is required to coordinate land management planning for a national forest system, such as our upcoming forest plan revision, with land management planning conducted by state and local governments,” said Stacey Forson, Ochoco National Forest Supervisor. “This coordination allows the Forest Service to consider state or counties’ proposed management lands under their jurisdiction and vice versa.”

Forson added that as a cooperating agency, the county can assist the Forest Service in preparing an environmental impact statement for projects on national forest system lands, providing special expertise or assistance to the agency and analyzing effects of the proposed action.

Carol Benkosky, manager of the Prineville BLM District, said the same of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

“Under FLPMA, the BLM is required to assure that consideration is given to those state, local and tribal plans that are germane to the development of land use plans for public lands,” she said.

Also offered as an alternative to the Natural Resource Plan, some speakers highlighted the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative, a group co-convened by Fahlgren and Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe that brings timber executives and environmentalist together to develop forest management plans that are agreeable to both parties.

“It’s easy to want a magic bullet and an easy solution and to dig in your heels and want to fight it, but if what we want is active management of the landscape, it really does take working with folks you might not always agree with all the time.”

Vernita Ediger, natural resources and environment program administrator for Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, agreed and invited public participation in the Collaborative.

“It’s a way to have your local voice integrated in land management from the bottom up,” she said.

Both collaboration and coordination were discussed when members of the public were invited to weigh in on the plan. George Heinz, who served as the wildfire committee chair for the Natural Resources Plan PAC, said collaboration was a way to get to coordination, which he contends is the end game for natural resources management.

“I think the Crook County Natural Resources Plan is a great tool for the county to utilize,” he said. “There may be some issues that still need to be worked out with specific language, but I think that it is the end game to get to.”

Pete Sharp, who also served on the PAC, stressed that he is not against collaboration and likewise feels it is a tool to help the county initiate the coordination process.

“This is not a negative,” he said of the Natural Resources Plan. “It is a positive. If you dig into it and look at it, it is nothing but positive.”

Local resident Barbara Fontaine did not agree, saying she sees a lot of problems with the plan as written.

“It is inconsistent with itself, and the law statements are presented as fact without any reference to scientific literature,” she said. “Even if this concept of coordination is real, there is no analysis of the cost to the county government of entering into such a process.”

Denise Steffenhagen, another county resident, also spoke out against the plan, saying it makes no sense to adopt something that attorneys have said is illegal.

“It seems to be working well between the federal agencies and our Crook County commissioners and judge and the planning department,” she remarked. “There are resource advisory boards and other opportunities for the people who have worked so hard on the Natural Resources Plan. I would encourage them to get on with the voluntary boards and other agencies to work together.”

Rejection of the plan was one of two options considered by the County Court. Commissioners could have also voted to accept the plan, in its current form, as an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan.

However, court members opted to reject the plan because it gives the PAC’s attorney time to review it and make any necessary changes before submitting it as a comprehensive plan amendment. Whatever changes are made upfront are expected to speed up the potentially lengthy land use process.

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