By Todd Devlin
Prairie County Commissioner
I went to Washington DC this last week for four days. The reason for the trip was to address issues with:
1) Bureau of Land Management and United States Fish & Wildlife Service on the Sage Grouse.
2) A meeting with the Western Congressional Caucus that was hosted by Western Counties Alliance that addressed bison, sage grouse, wild horses and burros, timber, payment in lieu of taxes, geothermal, and secure rural school dollars. There were over 20 congressional staff present.
3) Two days of meetings at the National Association of Counties (NACo) of which I serve on the Public Lands Steering Committee.
Success and concerns addressed
• The Sage Grouse issue is huge. It will make the Spotted Owl listing look like peanuts. As many of you already know, all United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Districts are required to adjust their Resource Management Plans to address Sage Grouse habitat loss and to manage those lands to increase or stabilize that habitat. This directive is from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
If the USFWS is not satisfied with the plans of the land management agencies, they will list the Greater Sage Grouse on the endangered species list of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2015.
If the Sage Grouse get listed all actions on federal lands will be at risk. One restriction guideline under consideration states that no disturbances will be allowed within a 2-mile radius of leks and nesting grounds. This means the possibility of no water development and no fencing within that area and more. No oil and gas development. No REA lines. Furthermore, all private lands in Sage Grouse habitat areas would have to go through a "permit" process in order to change use or improve with the USFWS. I and representatives from other counties are aggressively stressing that the issue with Sage Grouse is influenced by predators — not habitat loss. We also stress that the USFWS was responsible for the high numbers of Sage Grouse in the 1950s and 1960s because of their aggressive actions in controlling predators during that time.
• Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) is an issue that I have worked on for over 20 years. I have protested it, appealed it, lobbied it, sued it. And, I will protest and appeal it again probably.
For a year I was banned from entering the Department of Interior main building in Washington DC because I would not drop my protest and appeal. But, I will not stop addressing this issue until it is done.
This year, I gathered commissioners from Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho, California, Nevada, and Arizona to come to a meeting with Senator Baucus' staff to suggest a source of permanent funding for PILT.
This has been an issue since 1977 — it is now time for Congress to pay their taxes.
Our suggestion is to use federal revenue from federal resources that come from those same lands that we receive PILT on. Federal lands and holdings generate over $13 billion a year. PILT is only $400 million for the entire nation. It’s a small piece of the pie and a great investment for the feds in funding noxious weed control, roads, records, etc ... which might make too much sense for Washington DC.
• Secure Rural Schools funding is something we should be concerned about. Timber counties receive this money due to the almost total destruction of the timber industry due to the spotted owl listing. But, now we have timber that is dying because of the pine beetle and over grown competition. This affects us how? Watersheds up west are at risk due to extreme fires. This in turn is washed down the tributaries and ends up in navigable waters. This will affect the Yellowstone River and how clean that water is.
I don't think we want the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) starting to aggressively regulate "non point source pollution" in Prairie County because it has "significant nexus" to a navigable river. EPA will go to the area with the least resistance and population. The answer is to start cutting trees! It has to be long term contracts so the timber industry will make the investment. Furthermore, if you remember last year’s fires, Prairie County and other counties around us had little to no help if we needed it due to the extreme forest fires up west and to the southwest of our county. The cost and risk to Prairie County citizens is not acceptable.
• Wild horses and burros: Well, we don't have any yet. As I understand it, the agreement on the Terry Badlands WSA was no wild or ferral horses or burros would be introduced. But, the BLM now has over 80,000 horses. 40,000 on the lands and 40,000 in lots. The maximum capacity of those lands is 25,000 horses (BLM's est). It’s a problem.
Supporters of these massive numbers are almost cult-like in nature. We had better never let our guard down.
Prairie County should be concerned about "free roaming" bison. One of the prime areas proposed for introduction of bison sits directly north of the Terry.
This has been a prime location proposal since at least 2003 and maybe earlier.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has a map of 8 proposed areas within Montana that have been suggested by "other entities" — the Terry Badlands are listed and marked on that map.
Some will say, "Stay home commissioner Devlin and take care of our roads! Let someone else go to DC!"
I am going to give you one example of a little surprise that raised it's ugly head while I was in Washington DC attending the National Association of Counties meeting. NACo’s Public Lands Steering Committee had an "emergency" resolution come in requesting use of Pittman - Robertson dollars to fund a nationwide mental health program. Keep in mind the Pittman-Robertson is an 11 percent tax on firearms and ammunition that is currently used as project money for state wildlife agencies and hunters safety. This is a $500 million plus program! You see! Proponents of this resolution were trying to make a connection between misuse of guns and mental health — a precedent we do not want implemented.
This was not the intent of the Pittman - Robertson Act and during this meeting I was given the opportunity to remind those in attendance of this and I strongly urged opposition to this resolution.
It went down unanimously in Public Lands Committee due to my urging and testimony given. But at the same time, it passed both Human Services and Health Committees and went to the NACo board of directors. Montana commissioners had caucused on this and strongly opposed it again. But, the resolution had passed in the Human Services Committee and the Health Committee and was then passed by the NACo Board of Directors! If I would have had the opportunity to testify in those other committees too, I believe it would have been voted down as well.
Our next shot at this is July, 2013 at the NACo annual meeting. We must get this policy killed! We will get this killed, but it takes commissioners visiting Washington DC to get it done.
And why did it pass in the first place? Ill informed voters.
With these important issues at hand it is my sincere hope that the tax dollars spent were a sound investment for the betterment and preservation of our community.
Published March 13, 2013