By Marcy Stamper

After years of verbal appeals and a systematic letter-writing campaign, the Okanogan County commissioners have ratcheted up efforts to encourage federal agency managers to coordinate their planning and decision-making with the county government.

The commissioners adopted a resolution at the end of October that dedicates staff time and resources to implement a strategy to achieve their coordination goals and “[bring] the federal agency decisions to a greater level of consistency with the plans and policies of Okanogan County.”

While the details of the strategy have not been developed, it could include litigation to compel federal agencies to involve the county from the earliest planning stages, according to Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro.

The resolution establishes a partnership with attorney Fred Kelly Grant, noting that “Okanogan County officials and staff have relied heavily on the training and guidance provided by Fred Kelly Grant to assist them in their interactions with federal agencies.”

Grant is an attorney who has pursued the coordination issue on a national level, taking cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell, who said Grant had offered to help Okanogan County and the three other northern-tier counties take on the coordination issue. “If necessary, we will be prepared to litigate to take the coordination process further,” said Campbell.

“We have seen an incremental destruction of our culture, customs and economic stability in three to four decades of litigation from the opposing side,” said DeTro, who said that environmental organizations have manipulated federal and state environmental laws to interfere with timber, grazing and mining operations through legal action — or mere threats of legal action. The counties are proposing to adopt some of the same tactics, said DeTro. “When have you last heard of a county suing the Forest Service over forest health?” he asked.

Among the matters of concern listed in the resolution to partner with Grant are the U.S. Forest Service management and travel plans, endangered species listings and federally-funded land acquisition programs.

The commissioners met with Grant at a meeting organized by the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association in October, joined by commissioners of Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. The four counties have been working together on issues of common concern, said DeTro.

After the commissioners described their frustrations with the impact of federal agency actions on local land use and economic stability, DeTro said Grant consulted his financial supporters and received a commitment to back Okanogan County — in conjunction with other interested Eastern Washington counties — to invoke coordination statutes.

A key principle of coordination is that the local government be able to provide input from the beginning and help formulate alternatives, said DeTro. He drew a distinction between coordination and collaboration or cooperation, where a federal agency only notifies the county of its plans, said DeTro.

“That’s where they’ve missed the point. True coordination brings the local government to the table in the planning and scoping stage,” said DeTro. Scoping helps the agency outline the issues that will be addressed in an environmental analysis.

Federal coordination laws also apply to state agencies that fund projects in the county with federal money, said DeTro. Since 2000, Okanogan County has had its own ordinance requiring state and federal agencies to coordinate all actions with the county government from the earliest stages.

More frequent communication

One outcome of the commissioners’ push for coordination is a monthly meeting with Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu and his counterpart from the Tonasket Ranger District. “The common denominator is we have a desire to have effective and positive communication — that’s our mutual goal,” said Liu.

Liu said the Forest Service has always tried to convey information of interest to the county, and that briefings and notifications about the opportunity to comment on large and small projects — from management plans to timber sales — had appeared to be adequate for previous boards of commissioners.

The current board has indicated that they want to be involved earlier in the process, so the Forest Service has complied by providing two weeks’ advance notice of any opportunity for scoping, said Liu.

While there are areas of agreement, the Forest Service and county commissioners diverge when it comes to the county’s role in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, said Liu. Input from the county commissioners must be treated the same way as input from any other group or individual, he said. “There can be no special weight for the county commissioners versus an individual citizen — each comment is considered on its own merits,” said Liu.

NEPA directs federal agencies to assess every comment to determine what to analyze, said Liu. “We’re looking for information we don’t have, for concerns about the environment and resource impacts. We also want to be sure we’re doing a good job to reflect the economic impacts,” said Liu.

Part of the conflict involves the role of federal lands. The Forest Service views federal lands — including those in Okanogan County — as there for the American public to enjoy, said Liu. But with almost half of the Okanogan County under Forest Service management, the county commissioners see the use of public lands as a central economic issue for the county.

Despite their ongoing frustration with the lack of full coordination, DeTro said there have been promising developments. He hailed the monthly meetings with the district rangers and said the rangers seem to understand the difference between coordination and collaboration. The rangers have also been keeping commissioners up to date on things such as timber sales and fish projects, he said.

In addition to the monthly briefings at commissioners’ meetings, the Ranger District has proposed meeting at the district office to review maps and discuss plans and concerns in greater detail. Liu said he hoped that would meet the commissioners’ objectives to take an active role in developing proposals. They are still working out the logistics of these meetings and it is not clear if they will be arranged, said Liu.

Because the Forest Service is a massive, multi-tiered federal agency, even local ranger districts often do not have early knowledge of many proposals, particularly those generated by outside groups, said Liu.

Liu also pointed to a new group called the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative organized by the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board that gives the Forest Service, the county and the public an opportunity for involvement in decisions affecting the forest.

Next steps

If this process leads to litigation, the issue will be chosen with deliberation and input from the four northern-tier counties and possibly a larger group of counties that Okanogan County works with called the Eastern Washington Council of Governments, said DeTro. Areas of major concern include forest health and resource utilization, involving timber, grazing and mining. DeTro said they hope to choose an issue for potential litigation within a year.

Individual counties would have to issue a resolution to join a lawsuit, as the multi-county consortiums do not have that authority, said DeTro. Consideration of any resolution to pursue legal action would include input from the public. The resolution establishing the partnership with Grant also specifies a public hearing to gather input from Okanogan County citizens and other interested parties.

The resolution to work with Grant “just roughs out a critical path,” said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston, who has been asked by the commissioners to prepare a budget and estimate of staff time devoted to the issue.

If the county works with Grant to file a lawsuit, Okanogan County would have to make a nominal financial contribution to prove the county is serious, but in-kind contributions, such as staff time to compile documents and research, will be part of the arrangement, said DeTro.

Grant did not respond to requests to provide more information about his work or involvement with the county. In addition to his legal actions on behalf of local governments, Grant has written widely on the coordination issue and on private property rights and maintains several websites and blogs, including www.FKGPoliticsatRandom.com and www.JusticeMyAss.com. He is based in Boise, Idaho.