Advocate seeks support for taking over federal property
By Marcy Stamper
Frustrated by what they say are fruitless efforts to compel the federal government to consult county officials before taking actions that affect land use and natural resources within the county, the Okanogan County commissioners are exploring other means of gaining more control over these lands.
The commissioners and their counterparts from three other Eastern Washington counties heard from an Idaho county commissioner on Friday (July 24) who is seeking support for a way to compel the federal government to cede control of federal lands to the states and counties. The Okanogan County commissioners meet regularly with their counterparts from Pend Oreille, Stevens, and Ferry counties in a group called the Quad County Commissioners.
At last week’s Quad County meeting, Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik urged the commissioners to support his campaign to shift federal control to county governments through a legal strategy “based on the federal government’s denial of equal footing for the western states and the fundamental ideas of equality and fairness for all,” according to his written materials. Ultimately they aim for Congressional action to transfer the land.
Chmelik said he intends to use tactics similar to those employed by environmental organizations, which he said have prevented agencies like the U.S. Forest Service from using the land for timber and other natural resources.
“How do you grow your population when you are denied the opportunity to use your natural resources to create good-paying jobs?” asked Chmelik.
Part of the movement to press for more local control or return of federal lands to the states contends that the U.S. government honored an obligation to relinquish lands to states east of Colorado but has held onto lands in western states. About 46 percent of land in Okanogan County is under federal management, primarily the Forest Service.
The requirement for federal and state governments to coordinate and consult with county officials is part of the Okanogan County code, but the commissioners regularly voice their frustration about the failure of federal agencies to include them as an equal partner in decisions regarding forest management, land use and wildlife.
The Okanogan County commissioners have been discouraged that their requests for an equal role have been ignored. According to Chmelik, this is common. “Even collaboration meetings don’t count, because it’s all their rules,” he said.
“We can make a difference, because there’s more of us than there are of them,” said Chmelik. “We have to band together and cross party lines to make a difference.”
New approach to familiar territory
The Okanogan County commissioners have visited this issue before. They adopted a resolution in April 2014 that supports “the transfer of public lands to the states and counties in order to promote the future health, education and well-being of the children of the State of Washington and Okanogan County.”
The resolution states that poor management has contributed to unhealthy forests and an increase in catastrophic wildfires. It says that payments from the federal government that are intended to compensate the county for untaxable land have been unreliable, creating budget problems for the county.
The April 2014 resolution names the American Lands Council as one group working on the issue and says the commissioners support its efforts. It could not be learned if they had made any financial contributions to the effort.
Chmelik said he has talked to representatives from the American Lands Council but that “there is a sense they’re not doing anything.” He referred to a recent lawsuit against the group’s founder that has distracted the group from its mission.
In June, the Lands Council issued a strong defense of Ken Ivory, its founder and a Utah state representative, against charges of defrauding taxpayers and misleading local officials into supporting his effort to return federal lands to the states. The charges were filed by the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit that says it uses “research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life.”
The Okanogan County 2014 resolution also calls on the Washington governor and Legislature to transfer federal lands to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Over the years, the commissioners have also criticized management practices of state agencies such as DNR and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for inadequate management that has allowed forests to become unhealthy and promoted the growth of noxious weeds.
For his campaign, Chmelik said he is currently seeking only letters of support as a basis for meeting with members of Congress. Any financial contributions would need to be included in future county budgets, he said.
Chmelik ultimately seeks contributions of $3,000 to $5,000 from each county for legal representation; professional expertise in law, land use, mining and forestry; and for a public relations campaign. His goal is to raise $350,000 to $500,000.
The lawsuit would not be for the transfer of public lands but about “fairness,” said Chmelik—for example, access to public lands, public power and economic opportunity.
Chmelik has formed the Western Landmark Foundation to finance his efforts. Contributions are being handled by a Montana nonprofit called Balanced Use, he said. It was not clear if this is the same as Citizens for Balanced Use, a nonprofit based in Gallatin Gateway, Montana.
The commissioners listened to Chmelik’s presentation and there was a short question-and-answer session, but there was no discussion or decision about supporting his efforts. Efforts to reach the Okanogan County commissioners for more information were unsuccessful.
The Quad County Commissioners also got a briefing on the recently completed Washington Legislative session from state Reps. Joel Kretz and Shelly Short and state Sen. Brian Dansel. Topics included the use of conservation easements by WDFW, firefighting legislation and the state budget.