HAMILTON - Despite a last-minute appeal by critics asking for more time, the Ravalli County commissioners unanimously approved a natural resource policy Thursday morning.
The commission contends the policy will help guide the county in future dealings with public lands managers, including the U.S. Forest Service.
Much of the public comment Thursday came from citizens concerned that the county is overreaching with its new policy and that commissioners have not taken enough time to find the middle ground between different interest groups.
Newly elected commissioner Jeff Burrows told those in attendance the policy wasn’t something set in stone.
“We can come back and revisit this,” Burrows said. “It’s a living document and updates can be made.”
The policy was initially written by a group of citizens mostly concerned with the economic and environmental impacts of national forest management in and around the Bitterroot Valley.
Last spring, the group’s proposed natural resource plan was offered to the commission. In a series of public meetings that began in May, the commission went over the proposed policy sentence by sentence and made changes.
Over the past few weeks, the commission has considered an alternative policy written by a group of eight county residents who were especially concerned about the county’s position on “coordination.”
Commissioners point to federal environmental law they say opens the door for the county to have a special seat at the table under the term “coordination.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Kelsey Milner of Hamilton said that aspect of the county’s policy “smells like county supremacy and an assault on public lands.”
Russ Lawrence of Hamilton said he attended many of the meetings the commission held about the document. The chief change the commission made was to substitute the word “policy” for the word “plan,” he said.
The Bitterroot National Forest already has a land use plan, Lawrence said. And when it comes time to update that plan, the agency will have to consider impacts to not only local interests, but also how it will benefit 300 million other Americans, he said.
“The policy you are considering, I believe, is an overreach and a waste of your time and taxpayers' dollars,” Lawrence said.
Nancy Ballance of Hamilton helped write the original document. She said federal laws regulating management of public lands make it very clear that local governments should have a special role in coordinating with federal land management agencies.
While critics claim the commission isn’t filled with experts on timber management or hydrology, Ballance said the government does recognize that commissioners are experts on Ravalli County’s unique economic issues, customs and culture.
“They need to be able to protect that,” she said.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said he wasn’t sure where the pushback was coming from on the issue.
“This is something that we will be able to bring to the table when decisions are going to be made,” Chilcott said. “This is a negotiation tool.”
Chilcott challenged anyone to show him where there was anything in the document that suggested the county was looking for supremacy over federal lands.
“It’s just not there,” he said.