Crook County leaders unexpectedly decided not to adopt a natural resource plan Wednesday that was designed to give local leaders more say over how federal lands are managed.
The debate over the plan is the latest among rural Oregon communities that are increasingly frustrated with what they see as federal overreach. The creation of a natural resource plan outlining a local vision for public lands is one manifestation of that frustration.
Related: Crook County Natural Resource Plan
A local group called the Crook County Natural Resources political action committee drafted the plan. The group came together earlier this year with the shared goal of having more local say in natural resource management. The plan emphasizes logging, grazing, roads access and mining as resource use priorities.
Local resident Barbara Fontaine said she’d rather see the county commissioners lead this kind of process, not a political action committee.
"I don’t feel that participation in this group was particularly open," Fontaine said. "I think the county court should follow its own policy for vetting and review and public input on such an important issue."
George Bond also asked the council to hold off on voting the plan in.
"Right now, the prudent thing to do is to take a pause," Bond said. "A higher level of county public involvement is warranted."
The decision not to immediately approve the plan was a reversal for both Commissioner Ken Fahlgren and Judge Mike McCabe. Last week, they released YouTube videos saying they'd be voting for the plan.
But in the meeting Wednesday, county attorney Jeff Wilson raised serious concerns about the plan. He said the plan may not pass legal muster, and passing it could put the county at risk for legal challenges.
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Plan supporter Cliff Kiser said the document sends a message to federal agencies.
“I’m saying, 'You do have to listen to me.' We may not get what we want, but you do need to listen to me.”
Supporters see the plan as the first step in invoking county/federal “coordination” — a little-known provision in two federal environmental policy laws that require agencies to coordinate with local governments for land-use planning. The trend toward invoking coordination is gaining steam in rural counties across Oregon and across the West. Crook County's plan was modeled after one passed in Baker County.
Teresa Rodriguez, one of the leaders of the PAC, said her group began by taking Baker County's plan and replacing "Baker County" with "Crook County" throughout the document.
The plan called for federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to work with with Crook County on a government-to-government basis.
Some counties see coordination as a tool to give them more leverage than, say environmental groups, although law experts will point out that the coordination process doesn’t mean the county’s vision overrules federal law.
McCabe told the PAC leaders that the county needs more time. "You want us to do this in six months. I think that’s a little unjust on your part."
The county commissioners and judge ultimately decided to table a vote on the natural resource plan until it can be revised through a public process.
Still, Commissioner Seth Crawford cautioned against making huge changes to the plan as it stands.
"The majority of the people in our community believe in less regulation," said Crawford. "I don’t think anyone here is scared to look at it and have a conversation. But I also think that we need to make sure we’re not changing how it looks."