The Ravalli County Commissioners questioned Marty Gardner last week about his work as a consultant helping a couple of counties in Idaho revamp their Natural Resource Policies. Gardner was hired to help both Idaho and Clearwater Counties to update their policies as a tool in collaborating with the local National Forests as those forest plans are being revised.
Commissioner Chris Hoffman said that the commission was “looking for a little guidance in the revision of our Natural Resource Policy.”
Gardner told the commission that he worked for the Forest Service for over 30 years and that his background was in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the forest planning process. He said the biggest problem with forest planning for the public was the process itself.
“The public struggles to understand the Forest Service,” he said, and as a result is ineffective in communicating its concerns. He said the same holds true for the county government. He said the key to having an impact in the process was to speak the same language as the people you are dealing with, in this case the U.S. Forest Service.
Gardner described the local county government’s role in the forest planning process as one with a special seat at the table. He said, under the rules, local government must be consulted and its plans and policies plans should be taken into account when plans are being made on the forest.
Gardner said that he helps counties put their natural resource policies into the same language, using the same definitions as the Forest Service, so the counties concerns can be easily understood by the agency.
According to the rules of the process, he said, forest plans must address local concerns related to economic and social sustainability as well as impacts on custom and culture.
“This opens the door to counties, not to dictate the outcome of the process, but to become more effectively involved.” He said a properly constructed Natural Resource Policy, that is a cooperating agency with a plan, carries a lot of weight in the planning process.
“It almost amounts to being able to submit an Alternative to be considered in the NEPA process,” he said. Although it can’t displace the Forest Service’s scoping process, a good Natural Resource Policy can have an impact on the process. He said the sooner the county got involved in what the local forest was planning, the better. He said then they could even help shape the formation of original Alternatives and be sure that theirs are recognized and included.
Carlotta Grandstaff, representing Bitterrooters for Planning, expressed concern about some of the language that she read in a document from one of the Idaho counties. She called the language polarizing and divisive to the point of being cartoonish with good loggers pitted against bad environmentalists. She suggested that that kind of language be avoided here.
“Maybe that language is acceptable over in Idaho,” she said, “but not here.”
Commissioner Hoffman said that what got his attention about the natural resource policies developed in Idaho and Clearwater counties was not the particular language, but the structure and the form of the documents.
“It’s not our intent to put language in that would polarize people,” he said.
Hoffman said the county was only at the beginning of the process of addressing its Natural Resource Policy. He said no decisions have been made and that nothing has been written or re-written yet, even in a draft form.
Larry Campbell told the commissioners that the economic report that they solicited from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research about the timber industry was flawed in that it did not consider any of the costs associated with logging. He said the policy revision process was also flawed if it was simply going to pit one interest versus other interests without an adequate analysis and appreciation of the ecosystem that all those interests depend on. He said for any sort of plan to pass muster, it must also be based on the best available science, because if it isn’t, it will not be defensible in court.
Steve Schmidt, president of the Ravalli County Collaborative Committee, said that his committee was ready to help the commissioners in any way possible.
Gardner was asked about his recent efforts at establishing collaborative groups.
One of the most important things, according to Gardner, is to make the group as inclusive as possible by reaching out to the broadest possible representative cross-section of community views. He said it makes sense to reach out to existing organizations that have an interest in natural resource management. He said his collaborative currently has about 50 organizations.
But his concept is not all inclusive. He said participants must be committed to the public interest, not just to their own particular interests. He said if an organization is stuck on its views and claims and is not willing to entertain any change for the public good, then they should be excluded. He believes that commitment to the public interest and the overall process from the beginning is important.
He said another difference in his collaborative effort than most is that it is not based on monthly meetings. He said that model suffers from limitations of travel and time that an internet platform, social media model overcomes and reaches more people.
“It is kind of a continual meeting,” said Gardner, “instead of a monthly one.” And anybody can join in. He said even those who are not up to speed digitally can get walked through the process on-line and make their views known.
Gardner said the collaborative may have 60 participants. But these are sent some questions that may reduce that to something like 40. This pool of participants is separated into groups of 15 people which tackle particular issues gathering information and input to present to the larger group. The large group then can approve a response to any particular issue with an 80% majority.
According to Gardner, by having a collaborative group involved in forming and supporting the county’s natural resource policy, it can give it more weight in the federal planning process.
Grandstaff, speaking for herself, expressed concerns about some public testimony being given more “weight” than anybody else’s.
Both Commissioners Hoffman and Jeff Burrows said that they believed the local public, the people who live here day to day with the impacts, should have more say than the “boy from Illinois.”
Gardner emphasized that the collaborative process doesn’t displace the federal scoping process, but if it is a truly broad cross-section of the community, it does make for a stronger voice.
Hoffman said at the end of the meeting that he would remain in touch with Gardner as the county’s efforts to review its natural resource policy go forward.