March 2011

Citizen unrest: Locals push the county to get tough with forest officials

By Gail Binkly

It’s beginning to seem like the meeting of the irresistible force and the immovable object.

Urged on by some local citizens who believe counties need to assert more authority over federal public lands, the Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners are pressuring the Forest Service to make changes in its travel-management plans and its planning overall to reflect their concerns.

Officials with the San Juan National Forest, however, continue to say that they are doing their best to respond to local sentiments while conforming to national policies as well as the need to protect resources.

“I still feel like we have a long way to go on some of these issues,” sighed Dolores County Commissioner Julie Kibel at a Jan. 18 meeting among the two county commissions and representatives of the San Juan National Forest.

The controversy over public-lands management has become so rancorous that it has led to a protest march, scattered talk of recalling the Montezuma County commissioners, and demands for forest officials to be brought before the county and ordered to “comply” with the land-use code within 30 days.

Though the counties and Forest Service have been working to resolve their differences for months – ever since concern erupted over the proposed travel-management plan for the Boggy Draw-Glade area northwest of the town of Dolores – they remain at loggerheads over several issues.

Those issues include specific elements of the travel-management plan – such as the closing of some 62 miles of publicly accessible roads and a ban on the use of cross country motorized travel to retrieve big game carcasses in hunting season.

But the sentiment against the agency is also more broadly based, reflecting general concerns about public-lands management, federal authority and the size of the government.

“Very few people [who are upset] can specifically point to existing routes [that are to be closed],” said Steve Beverlin, manager of the Dolores Public Lands Office, which oversees the Boggy-Glade area. “And when they finally do get down to talking about existing routes, the vast majority go, ‘Oh, those are still open.’

“So I think it’s a philosophical concern about closing access rather than about what we’ve actually done.”

Protest march

Frustrated over what they perceive as a lack of sensitivity to local needs on the part of the federal agencies, the Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners have called on the Forest Service and BLM to “coordinate” with them. They believe this gives the counties more power and influence in public- lands management decisions, although exactly what it means for the agencies to “coordinate” with local governments is still subject to some argument.

Under the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976, which established much public-lands policy, coordination is defined as having five elements, which include keeping apprised of state, local and tribal landuse plans; assuring that consideration is given to those plans when developing a federal plan or management action; working to resolve inconsistencies between local and federal plans; and providing for meaningful public involvement of state and local officials into federal land-use decisions.

The commissioners have demanded more input into planning processes and have been exchanging letters with Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest supervisor and manager of the San Juan Public Lands Center. Stiles has said the national forest’s legal experts are evaluating the meaning of “coordination” and will soon give a reply to the county.

But for some citizens, that isn’t enough.

Their feelings came to a peak on Feb. 4, when approximately 100 people staged a quarter-mile protest march along Highway 145 to the Dolores Public Lands Office. They carried signs such as, “Keep roads open for our disabled and elderly” and “Fire USFS.”

A number of people spoke at the gathering, complaining about everything from animal-rights activists to God being taken out of public schools, in addition to publiclands management.

Dennis Atwater of the Montezuma County Public Lands Coordination Commission told the crowd that the DPLO’s rule-making and scoping for the travel-management plans had “not been done in a legal manner” and that it was “in violation of the Montezuma County land-management plan.”

The PLCC was appointed by the commissioners in 2010 to work on public-lands issues.

“We also need a board of county commissioners that understands coordination and that’s a problem here too,” Atwater said. “Most county commissioners to this day don’t understand what coordination is.”

Sheriff Dennis Spruell also spoke briefly. “Isn’t it great to live in a country where we can gather and enjoy our First Amendment rights?” he said, adding, “This is what America’s about – fighting for our rights – congregating – bringing attention to what’s wrong and making a wrong right.”

He encouraged the crowd to be civil to federal employees. “I want to encourage everybody to be nice. A lot of Forest Service employees are making a good wage, but they’re not bad people. They’re doing what they’re ordered to do. Let’s not personally attack them, but let’s keep up the fight because if we don’t keep up the fight, we’re going to lose.”

One speaker, Louie Edwards, noted that none of the county commissioners were present. “Elections are coming up before long,” Edwards said. “If they’re not going to do their job and represent us in the manner they’re supposed to, they should step aside.”

‘Stonewalling’?

About 20 people came to the Feb. 7 meeting of the Montezuma County commissioners to urge them to put more pressure on the Forest Service.

Atwater told the board the agency was “stonewalling” regarding its obligations to coordinate with the county.

He charged that the staff of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton had asked Beverlin’s office for some information in response to citizens’ inquiries, “and it turns out there’s nothing in the file,” Atwater said.

“So it’s exactly what we say it is. It’s stonewalling. The county needs to take a position.”

He asked the commissioners to send a letter immediately to the agency.

“We already sent a letter [to Mark Stiles],” said Commissioner Steve Chappell. “We’re getting a response. We’re going to have a meeting. But your request is to keep sending letters?”

Atwater said yes. He had a fiery letter drafted by the PLCC that called for the agency to start over with travel planning.

“The Montezuma County, Board of County Commissioners declares the preparation and implementation of, ‘Travel Management & Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Program,’ in Montezuma County, to be a flawed process as it was not prepared in compliance with, 36 C.F.R. Section 219.7 (c) that requires review and coordination of State, Local and Tribal Governments land use before making a decision,” the letter stated, adding that the travel planning also violated other laws and regulations including the county’s comprehensive land-use plan.

“Therefore, and in the interests of the Health, Safety and Welfare of the citizens of Montezuma County, The Travel Management and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Program must, in Montezuma County, be retracted in its entirety and the process began again in full compliance with the law,” the draft letter stated.

Not satisfied with the commissioners’ response that they would take this under consideration, some folks made angry comments as they were leaving.

One told one of the commissioners to “act like a man!”, while others said they were sorry they had voted for them, and that people were talking about a recall.

The commissioners did not send the PLCC’s letter, but wrote a different letter thanking Beverlin and the San Juan Public Lands Office for working with them while still “strongly” urging them to halt further road closures until any RS 2477 roads (public routes predating the creation of the national forest) can be identified.

The commissioners’ letter added that many citizens are concerned about the ripping- out and berming of closed roads and about possibly not being able to have access to areas for wood-cutting. It also urged the agency to “reconsider seasonal game retrieval in most hunting areas.”

“While we feel that there are some very good aspects to the Boggy/Glade Travel Management Decision the process used to develop the Decision has resulted in unresolved issues,” the letter said. “Therefore, we request that the Forest Service accept additional comments on the Decision and work government to government to find acceptable resolutions to those remaining issues.”

‘Waffle words’

But on Feb. 28, Bud Garner, spokesman for the local 9-12 Project group, complained that the commissioners’ letter was too tame. He said it was “full of waffle words” and “does not express your authority – it does not demand anything of the Forest Service.”

Garner took issue with the use of the phrase “we strongly urge” rather than “require” or “demand.”

“This letter in my view and the view of the 9-12 group is inadequate in expressing your proper authoritory role in controlling this Forest Service,” he said.

Garner asked to be on the commission’s agenda, he said, because Commissioner Steve Chappell had run into him a couple of weeks earlier and expressed concern about some of the activities of the local 9-12/Tea Party chapter.

Garner said, contrary to rumors, the 9-12 group did not organize the protest at the Dolores Public Lands Office and is also not pushing for the recall of five members of the Cortez City Council, though there may be overlap in some of the people involved.

Because of campaign finance laws, Garner said, “We legally cannot be involved in some of the things rumors have us involved in, such as the rumor the 9-12 group is supporting a recall of the county commissioners.”

Garner said he had heard of the comments about recalling the commissioners, but those were not a threat, just remarks by citizens interested in current events.

He said the 9-12 group is “information and education-based” and studies current issues. “The top issue of the day is this publiclands business,” he said.

Garner charged that local Forest Service officials are “in clear and concise violations of federal law,” adding, “They are in the same violation of state law and they are in violation of the Montezuma County land-use plan. How many violations do we tolerate?”

He said he had been to a recent county public hearing at which the commissioners gave a landowner 30 days to fix a land-use code violation. “Mr. Beverlin and Mr. Stiles have never sat at this table in that regard,” Garner said, adding that they should be brought in and ordered to comply with the code.

“Let’s have a public hearing with Mr. Beverlin and Mr. Stiles sitting where I’m sitting and explaining their past violations of the law, the same way you treat your citizens for violations of the comprehensive land-use plan,” Garner said.

Chappell asked Garner if he had a list of these violations. Garner said they were cited in the draft letter from the PLCC, which talks about regulations regarding RS 2477 roads and the definition of “coordination” under FLPMA.

Chappell said the commissioners had brought up the citizens’ concerns in their own letter to the agency. Chappell said they had received a recent letter from Stiles that promised a field trip with representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding concerns about the decommissioning and berming of forest roads possibly violating the Clean Water Act.

“Writing letters back and forth is a delaying tactic,” Garner said.

When he continued to press the commissioners to do more, Chappell said, “I think we have a good understanding of what your desires are and what the 9-12 group is about, and we’ve gone over 30 minutes,” after which Garner and about 25 people who had also come for the discussion, including Sheriff Spruell, left.

Not a simple matter

Later, commission attorney Bob Slough told the board it should seek specifics before accusing agency officials of violating any county regulations.

He noted that the county’s comprehensive land-use plan is just advisory in nature, offering a general vision for the county. The land-use code, on the other hand, has the force of regulation, but it deals with specific issues such as high-impact permits, commercial and industrial operations, and zoning. “How is the federal government violating that?” Slough asked. “You need to say specifically what it is violating in the land-use code. You have to be a little bit more specific if you’re going to go to court. You have to have a case. You have to have evidence.”

Slough added, “It’s not as simple as sitting there and saying, ‘Make them do this, make them do that.’ When you have a case that merits going to court on, you can do that, or you can continue to try to talk and work things out.”

Beverlin told the Free Press he had welcomed the tone of the commissioners’ letter. “I appreciated their acknowledgement of the complexity of working through travelmanagement issues and I appreciated them identifying specific issues they had concerns with,” he said.

“I’m encouraged about where we’re at. I feel like we’ve turned a corner in our understanding of the travel-management process and have built relationships that allow us now to sit down in a respectful manner and talk through these issues face to face. Obviously we’re never going to agree on everything but I look forward to continuing to work with them.”