RBC I Suzy Foss became a Ravalli County, Mont., commissioner during the 2010 Tea Party wave.
Sixty-five years of age 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 she 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 non-profit organization 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.
The 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 said, “pretty straightforward.”
The nonprofit says more than 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,” said 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.
By Joshua Zaffos
High Country News