Montezuma County commissioners on Oct. 1 disbanded the county’s Public Lands Coordination Commission, citing ongoing disagreements over its role and doubts about its usefulness.
The PLCC was created in 2010 as an advisory group that would study public-lands issues and help the county provide input to federal-lands agencies.
The group had a tumultuous history; at one early meeting so much vitriol was expressed regarding Forest Service personnel that agency officials were concerned for employee safety and met with the commissioners to ask them to scale back the rancor.
Meetings continued, but five of the original members resigned, reportedly because some felt the group was becoming too adversarial. The PLCC was eventually sized down to seven members. It met 28 times over several years, the last time on Sept. 25.
“The worst problem was, I don’t think there was much that they accomplished,” Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer told the Free Press. “They fought so much among themselves, we felt like it was better for us to handle it ourselves. A lot of people on it quit because they felt it was dominated by a couple of people and their input wasn’t even being considered.
“When we first started that commission, we felt like it would represent different user groups to provide some input to us to help us provide input to the Forest Service. But it was to the point where they were trying to tell us that anything we sent to the agencies, we needed to run it past them first. Well, we’re the ones supposed to be coordinating with the agencies. They were supposed to provide input to us and that was not what was happening.”
Throughout its existence, there was tension between the PLCC and the commissioners over what approach to take with public-lands agencies. Some PLCC members wanted the county to vigorously pursue a plethora of county road claims over federal lands under a statute known as RS 2477, which applies to old roads that predate the existence of national forests and other federal lands.
The commissioners, however, took the position that there needed to be solid evidence to assert specific RS 2477 claims because the legal process of proving claims can be lengthy and expensive.
Some on the PLCC maintained that federal employees were violating county laws if they closed any roads on public lands, and wanted the sheriff to arrest Forest Service personnel who did so.
The commissioners – while often highly critical of the Forest Service and BLM – preferred to sit down with the agencies and try to work out compromises.
“I think we have made some progress with them as far as getting different concessions and being able to reason with them,” Koppenhafer said. “If you take an adversarial position and say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ they’ll just stonewall you.”
The Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners were able to win a major concession from the Forest Service over the hotly disputed Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan by persuading the agency to continue allowing motorized game retrieval in hunting season, something that runs contrary to most national forests’ policies nationwide. That change was in the draft travel plan; the final plan is due out soon.
“They’ve actually gone out of their way to try to make that work, and hopefully we can make it work,” Koppenhafer said. “They did not have to do that. They’re going against people in their own agencies above them in doing this. I think those kinds of concessions can happen if you’re willing to work with them, but not if you take a hard-line stance.”
Some on the PLCC did not agree.
Recently there was controversy over a letter sent by the county commissioners in mid- August to Canyons of the Ancients Monument Manager Marietta Eaton, Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla, and BLM Tres Rios Field Manager Connie Clementson.
The letter addressed the issue of whether the agencies were appropriately “coordinating” with the county by staying abreast of local land-use plans, considering those plans when contemplating a federal action, providing early notification to local governments of proposed changes, and so on.
In the letter, the commissioners thanked the agencies “for their ongoing efforts to coordinate with Montezuma County as federal law requires.”
The letter stated that “coordination is not optional, and is not the same as public input.” It listed five elements of coordination mandated by Congress, and said, “As long as federal agencies make a good faith effort to follow all five directives, then coordination is happening.”
Some on the PLCC were angered by the letter. Their view was expressed in a letter to the editor in the Cortez Journal by David Dove (not a PLCC member) that accused the commissioners of “disloyalty and double crossing of the citizens of Montezuma County” and of writing with “slobbering sycophantic words.”
Monument Manager Eaton told the Free Press she appreciated the letter and the spirit of cooperation shown by the commissioners. “From my standpoint, I think we’ve forged a really good relationship with them,” she said. “We stay in touch with them, we let them know what’s going on. I think it’s been a very positive relationship.”
Eaton said she had been to several meetings of the PLCC and thought the discussions there were “really fruitful.”
“There were clearly some people that did not agree with the positions the monument has taken, especially relative to transportation planning, but you just agree to disagree respectfully.
“If anyone wants to make an RS 2477 assertion, I’ve said this many times at PLCC meetings and to the commissioners – my door is open for those discussions. My policy is to talk to my local commissioners.”
The BLM’s Clementson likewise said she appreciated the letter. “To me it said that we are moving in the right direction in working with the counties.”
Clementson said she had been meeting with the PLCC but would be happy to work directly with the commissioners.
PLCC members Zane Odell, Slim McWilliams, and Matt Clerk could not be reached for comment. Casey McClellan, an alternate on the PLCC, said he was disappointed that it had been disbanded, “but on the other hand it wasn’t made up of the right folks.” He said it needed to represent a more diverse set of user groups, although he also said he would pre fer it not include paid representatives of environmental groups.
He said he agreed with parts of the commissioners’ letter but not others. “I agree in that coordination has improved, but the letter kind of contradicted itself in places.”
He said it didn’t make sense to say that coordination was required by law and then to thank the agencies for making a “good faith effort” to comply with the law.
McClellan said he thought the concession by the agencies on motorized game retrieval was “a very small victory” that would mainly benefit out-of-state hunters rather than locals wanting to drive their ATVs cross-country year-round.
McClellan has been working with a different user group that he started called the Southwest Public Lands Coalition, and said he hopes it can work with the agencies.
Montezuma County also has a longstanding citizens’ advisory group called the Rangeland Stewardship Committee that has been working on grazing and other issues with agencies for years.
Koppenhafer said, contrary to the assertions of some of the hard-liners, the county does not have the ability to dictate what happens on federal lands. “Those agencies – I don’t feel like we have any power over them. If you read the Constitution, we don’t have any power over them whatsoever. I feel like we do a lot better for the citizens we represent by talking with the agencies and telling them what our perspectives are.”