Montezuma County seeks to be on equal footing with the feds

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“You say to-MAY-to,
“I say to-MAH-to. . .”

— George & Ira Gershwin

As in many other counties across the West, the Montezuma County commissioners are singing a different version of that ditty, one that goes: “You say cooperate, I say coordinate.”

But the disagreement is not lighthearted or trivial. In arguing over those words, the counties are pushing for equal standing with federal agencies in making decisions about public lands.

For instance, on Aug. 17, during a spirited discussion with two local Bureau of Land Management officials, the commission insisted that the agency is not “coordinating” with the county.

Marietta Eaton, manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez, had told the board the monument had received some protests over its recent issuance of grazing permits and is reviewing those.

Commission chair Keenan Ertel said the county wants to be part of the decision- making process regarding grazing. “We don’t want collaboration or consideration,” he said.

“We’re cooperating with you,” Eaton replied.

Ertel said there is a difference between “cooperation” and “coordination” and the county wants the latter, which he regards as having more weight.

“That’s a semantic issue,” Eaton said.

But Ertel insisted it is not merely semantics. “We want coordination,” he said. “We want to be equal partners. . . We want to be at the table as equal partners and looking at the information and making decisions.”

Commissioner James Lambert agreed, saying the relationship between the federal agencies and the county should be “like two partners in a business – 50-50. That’s coordination, that’s not cooperation.”

The fuss over terminology stems from a movement that seeks to give local and state governments much greater influence over how public lands are managed. This latest version of the Sagebrush Rebellion is pinning its hopes on the single word “coordination.”

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Forest Management Act, both passed in 1976, both use the word “coordinate” when describing how the federal agencies should handle local-government input.

FLPMA, which provides over-arching guidance for the BLM, says that when the agency is revising or developing its land-use plans, it shall “coordinate” its “land use inventory, planning, and management activities. . . with the land use planning and management programs of other Federal departments and agencies and of the States and local governments within which the lands are located,” as well as Indian tribes. (However, that statement is preceded by the clause “to the extent consistent with the laws governing the administration of the public lands.”)

The National Forest Management Act, which guides the U.S. Forest Service, likewise calls for land-management planning to be “coordinated with the land and resource management planning processes of State and local governments and other Federal agencies.”

Advocates of greater power for local governments argue that the term “coordinate” in these laws means to put things or entities “on an equal footing,” and that is indeed one definition of the verb. Others say, however, that it simply means to “harmonize and bring into common action” – another definition.

The former view is generally espoused by the same special-interest groups, politicians, and others who advocate transferring public lands from federal to state control.

But federal-lands managers say “coordination” doesn’t mean counties get special status in deciding how those lands should be managed.

“I feel we come and consult with you more than with anybody else and talk to you about what’s going on,” Eaton responded to the commissioners on Aug. 17. “We’re doing what we can do, whatever you want to call it.”

She added that there has been no direction from her superiors to change the way the agency interacts with counties.

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” she said, and the commissioners quickly said they weren’t taking aim at local officials.

But the board continued to voice concerns about their relationship with the agency, saying that they had not been directly informed by the BLM’s Tres Rios Field Office, which manages area lands, that it is launching a process to create a master leasing plan for oil and gas development in a region stretching from the Hesperus area in La Plata County westward to the boundary of Canyons of the Ancients.

The master leasing plan is intended to take a close look at where and how energy development should be done in that particular area, with an eye toward protecting views, dark skies, quiet, and air and water quality in the vicinity of towns and/or Mesa Verde National Park. The Montezuma County commissioners are skeptical about the need for such a plan and worry that it would slow oil and gas exploration. Connie Clementson, manager of the Tres Rios Field Office, said she wasn’t sure whether coordination with the county was required for every action taken by the BLM.

“Where does that begin and end? Is it for every action?” she asked the commissioners.

She added that the creation of a master leasing plan is not a process governed by NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. “We have called you from day one and involved you,” she said.

But Ertel objected that he had only found out about the master leasing plan from a commissioner from another county.

“I apologize,” Clementson said, adding, “I did call Larry Don [Suckla, the third Montezuma County commissioner].”

Suckla confirmed that Clementson had called to tell him about a meeting regarding the master leasing plan. He then asked Clementson and Eaton whether their superiors have instructed them not to use the word “coordinate” when they speak with local government officials.

“No one has,” Eaton said, “but policy does not use that word, and I follow the policy of the BLM.”

“What part of the process are you feeling left out of ?” Clementon asked the board. “We will go back to our higher- ups and find out what role the county could have. We have tried really hard to work with you and give you information. . . but our decision process is our decision process, and I have to follow that.”

Ertel said that, rather than just informing the county of decisions they have made, BLM officials should give the county a role in making the decisions. “We need to be on the other side of that fence with you as you’re coming to your decision-making.”

He added, “You’re a resident on Montezuma County just like the other residents on Montezuma County. You’re not an owner.”

Clementon said, “The last time I checked, the federal government maintains they have the authority [over federal lands]. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

County attorney John Baxter argued that “the county has a lot more authority than the agencies are believing.”

“The county doesn’t have veto power, but the law requires you to sit at the table basically as equal partners,” he said.

Clementson said she would check to see if there had been updated guidance on the matter.

“This isn’t a new conversation,” she said. “It’s been going on for about 50 or 60 or 80 years.”

That ended the discussion that day, but the commissioners returned to the subject in their meeting Aug. 24, when attorney Baxter presented a draft letter to the BLM calling for coordination. Suckla said he’d learned recently that at one point Montezuma County had the status of a “cooperating agency” with the BLM, but let it lapse.

Baxter said that was because of the feeling that “you don’t want to reduce yourselves to a cooperating agency because you want to be a coordinating agency.”

Ertel agreed. “There is a special cooperating- agency status – I’m not sure where it comes from. Mesa County is one, but our stance is that coordination is a well-defined activity and function of good government. . . and it is not ‘cooperating.’ They’re different cats.”

But the agency has a very different interpretation.

A 2012 BLM “Desk Guide to Cooperating Agency Relationships and Coordination with Intergovernmental Partners” seems to indicate that “cooperating agency status,” which the commissioners have rejected, offers much of what they are seeking.

The guide says the concept of “cooperating agency” (CA) status stems from NEPA and, “The CA relationship is distinctive, moving beyond consultation to engage officials and staff of other agencies and levels of government in working partnerships.”

CAs have “early and significant involvement” in the preparation of environmental impact statements and have a role in most steps of BLM planning processes, the document says.

“There is no such designation as ‘coordinating agency status’,” according to the guide, but, “The CA relationship provides an excellent opportunity to meet, and exceed, [the agency’s] coordination responsibilities under FLPMA.”

The guide explains that the BLM has a regulatory obligation to keep apprised of local governments’ plans, give consideration to them when developing its own management plans, and try to resolve inconsistencies between federal and non-federal plans “to the extent practicable.”

But if a state or local plan is inconsistent with a federal law or policy, “The BLM does not have an obligation to seek consistency,” the guide says.

On Aug. 24, audience member M.B. McAfee asked the commissioners to clarify their views on coordination and cooperation.

Suckla explained, “We feel like if there’s 26,000 people we represent, our point of view should rise a little bit above the formal comments of anybody else.” McAfee said the county then should be “obliged to listen to [all] the voices of the 26,000.”

“If those voices come forward,” Ertel said. “We have heard a number of them.”

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