Counties say land planning would influence federal policies

The Legislature’s Federal Natural Resource Management Committee will consider bills at its December meeting providing $1.5 million for all Wyoming counties to develop their own land-use plans. Those plans would be aimed at influencing federal land policies by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

A quorum-less group of the committee’s legislators directed the Legislative Service Office to draft the bills Wednesday at a meeting in Laramie. The proposal comes after a request by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, which seeks to help counties develop those plans — known as Natural Resource Plans — in order to influence federal policies.

A county-level NRP would identify “objectives and priorities for resource use, development and protections, empowering counties to engage with federal land managers in their decision-making processes.”

If the Legislature backs a bill, Wyoming would follow in the footsteps of Utah, which developed land-use plans for all of its 29 counties, beginning in 2015.

Redge Johnson, a public lands consultant for the Utah Governor’s Office, said that since those plans have been enacted, federal agency managers have “used these plans to get common sense solutions on the ground.”

Johnson said he hopes Wyoming follows suit to “get as many Western states on board with this.”

Several of the most prominent federal land-use laws require agencies to be “consistent with state and local plans to the maximum extent (the agency) finds consistent with federal law.”

Wyoming County Commissioners Association director Pete Obermueller said the local plans must be comprehensive and based on sound science, but if adopted as official NRPs by the state like Utah did, the U.S. must attempt to conform to local rules.

In 2014, the Legislature established the Federal Natural Resource Policy Account, which is generally given a $1 million appropriation each biennium to help counties and the Attorney General’s office engage with the federal government on natural resource plans.

About half of the money has been spent on lawsuits and the other half has gone to counties as grants.

Those grants have helped trained county commissioners on how to most effectively influence federal decision-making.

As a result of that training, Obermueller said the county’s comments on federal rule-making have become more substantive.

“The federal agencies are all required to have us at the table, but without the FNRPA dollars and the resources it provides, it’s a little bit like showing up at the major leagues with your high school team,” Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston said.

It’s likely, Obermueller said, the 21 pages of comments provided by Wyoming’s counties led the BLM to roll-back several controversial provisions of Planning 2.0, the new version of resource management planning that was developed for years and drew the ire of Western states.

“We expected the federal government to reject what we provided, and they didn’t,” he said.

Planning 2.0 was later overturned by Congress in 2017.

Providing powerful input up-front, Obermueller said, is a more cost-efficient strategy for Wyoming than suing after the U.S. has finalized regulations the state doesn’t like.

While an administration helmed by President Donald Trump might be more responsive to the concerns of Western governments, county commissioners testified that Wyoming needs to continue to be more active in federal planning.

“Misunderstanding of public lands in the West is a bipartisan issue,” Obermueller said. “It’s not like Republicans east of the Mississippi have any better idea of what it is like.”

With a Republican administration in place, Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox said Wyoming governments have a chance to help set federal policy if they stay engaged.

“For eight of the last 10 years, we were playing defense. Here’s a chance to play offense,” he said.

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