UPDATE: Crook County leaders voted unanimously in favor of adopting the Natural Resource Policy Wednesday.
A plan aimed at giving locals more say in federal lands management is once again before Crook County leaders.
Commissioners held a meeting Monday night in Prineville, Oregon, to gather public input on the proposed plan. They plan to vote on it Wednesday.
The document lays out the history and economy of Crook County, emphasizing timber, mining, grazing and agriculture as mainstays in the central Oregon community. It also lays out county priorities for how federal public lands in Crook County should be managed.
The outlined policies favor extractive uses of public lands. For example, the plan calls for no reduction in the number of cows allowed to graze on public lands. It also emphasizes that forests should be logged following a wildfire, calls for no net reduction in Forest Service roads and says that lands previously open to mining should remain open.
Crook County’s plan is part of a recent movement in rural counties to resurrect an obscure federal policy and have more weight in federal lands management in their backyards. These counties are using “coordination,” a little-known provision in two federal environmental policy laws, which requires agencies like the Bureau of Land Management to coordinate with local governments in land use planning.
The idea is that if local governments set out their priorities and vision for public lands, then federal agencies have to adjust management practices to align with their plan.
Rural residents who disagree with actions by federal land agencies see such plans as one way their opinions can hold greater weight. Legal experts say such plans don’t put local governments on equal footing with the federal government, as some plan proponents have suggested.
“[The plan] is a position without warrant in federal law and will mislead county residents about the limited role the county actually possesses in federal land management," wrote Michael Blumm, law professor at Lewis and Clark University, in a letter submitted to Crook County leaders.
“While this does not give us the ability to change federal law, it does give us the opportunity for a seat at the table to discuss policies and procedures,” said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford at Monday’s meeting.
Prineville resident Tina Hamilton expressed concerns about the extraction focus on the plan and asked for more emphasis on activities like hiking, birdwatching and mountain biking.
“Central Oregon’s recreational use — including quiet recreation and not just motorized — is a driving force in our economic future,” Hamilton said.
New County Leaders In Place
This is the second time a version of the resource management plan will come before county leaders. The natural resource plan was created by members of the Crook County Patriots group who were frustrated with existing federal lands management and wanted more local control.
The group formed a political action committee and held meetings to draft the plan. The original plan was based nearly word-for-word on a similar plan from Baker County.
County leaders voted down that earlier draft of the plan last fall 2-1, after Crook County's own legal counsel said the submitted plan contradicted federal laws in certain places and didn't have legal teeth. But after then-commissioner Seth Crawford was elected judge alongside two new commissioners, the plan is circling back before the new court.
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The county contracted Wyoming lawyer Karen Budd-Falen to review the plan. Budd-Falen is a prominent promoter of these types of resource management plans.
She visited Crook County last spring and encouraged residents to forge ahead with developing the plan.
“I think pushing decision-making down to the local government is a really fabulous thing if local governments are prepared to participate in the decision,” Budd-Falen told a Prineville audience in March. “The federal statutes are are so broad that it’s actually not that hard to write a local land use plan that is completely in line with federal statutes.”
Budd-Falen served on President Trump’s transition team and has been rumored to be Trump’s imminent pick to head the Bureau of Land Management.
Many residents said the public did not have adequate time to review the latest policy draft, which Budd-Falen helped craft. The county posted the 59-page document Friday in advance of the Monday night meeting.
Crawford noted that the most recent version of the plan is a revision of older versions of the document, which has been publicly available for months.
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Jodie Fleck, member of the Central Oregon Patriots and one of the leaders of the political action committee that crafted the plan, urged the court to adopt it without delay.
“It’s ready to go. We need to get moving with coordination,” Fleck said. “There’s been a lot of talk about disturbing animals, disturbing wildlife, disturbing the forest. We’re not going in and tearing it up, but we want to be able to use and utilize it for everyone.”
Crook County, like many eastern and central Oregon counties, is about 50 percent federally owned land. At the heart of this debate is an issue that’s been simmering in rural Oregon and much of the American West for decades: Do local residents have a right to greater say in what happens with the federal lands near their communities?
Madras resident Chris Scranton said no.
“Your voice shouldn’t have any more value than someone from Iowa, or Nebraska,” Scranton told county leaders Monday. “Because we all own this public land, it belongs to all of us.”
“I don’t agree with that,” Judge Seth Crawford responded. "I think the people of Crook County should have more say because we are here and it does affect our lands.”