News Analysis
  
States May Take Equal Lead on Public Lands

   By Don Bowman

A provision of federal law largely ignored until now is forcing federal agencies to acknowledge local governments when making decisions affecting their regions.

As a consequence, several states and counties in the West -- including Nevada's Nye County -- are pursuing agreements that will require local and federal agencies to cooperate on public land management.
Several Nevada counties are now seeking a "seat at the table," but New Mexico has been in the forefront on this effort for some time, and it is New Mexico Lieutenant Governor Walter Bradley who is getting much of the credit for the new Western initiative.
"I have to salute our Lt. Governor," says Howard Hutchinson of the New Mexico-Arizona Coalition of Counties. "He has been the backbone of this idea from the start. He may be the only political leader in the West who understands what is going on."
Under section 1501.5(b) of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), a state or county can become a "joint lead agency," and Bradley has said that, in New Mexico, "we are taking a joint lead."
The consequences, reportedly, can be dramatic. According to one source, when the State of New Mexico chose to "take a joint lead" in an effort started by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife



Service to introduce the wolf into New Mexico, it practically stopped the effort "dead in its tracks."
Hutchinson says that NEPA laws require cooperation by the federal bureaucracies in all their activities -- a cooperation he says they should have been pursuing all along.
Instead, he says, the agencies have been ignoring the law and behaving irresponsibly toward rural people and their livelihoods. When Bradley made his stand, asserted Hutchinson, the Forest Service had to "catch its breath," because joint-lead roles for western states and counties is the one thing the federal agency did not want.
A role for local governments in the environmental impact assessment process is most effective, he said.
"We want membership on the Interdisciplinary Team," Hutchinson says. Because that team looks at environmental impacts -- both positive and negative -- membership on it could insure that the consequences for the social fabric of a community of, say, proposed reductions in grazing or timbering, would get factored in. Such social and community factors can have as much standing in


 
the assessments as stream flows and riparian areas, according to Hutchinson.
Ten counties in New Mexico and four counties in Nevada are trying to achieve lead status. While the New Mexico counties are being supported by their governor and lieutenant governor, Nevada's counties have been ignored by their state's Executive Branch.
Leaders in the new effort are Catron County, New Mexico, and Eureka and Nye Counties in Nevada. While Catron County has been working on the idea of cooperative status for over three years, Nye County came to the effort in a settlement with the federal government, the negotiation of which was ordered by a federal court in the Nye County suit case.
Several Nevada counties -- Lincoln, White Pine and Nye -- are trying to establish a tri-county agreement while Eureka County is attempting to come up with a variation. The assertive stance of the counties may be proving that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
At a recent meeting of the Nevada State Land Use Planning Council, a synopsis of the Nye County suit was given by Deputy Attorney General Wayne Howle. After saying that the judge had decreed the federal government owned and managed the public




lands, Howle then deferred to Nye County Commissioner Richard Carver to update the group on negotiations.
Carver said that Nye County would have never ended up in court if the federal government had cooperated in the first place. He said that the federal agencies had denied the county cooperative status in 1992 and started the whole fight. Although the district court decided against Nye County on ownership and jurisdiction, Carver said, everyone involved agrees the issue would not be settled until it reached the Supreme Court.
"Nye County would have won this lawsuit if the Nevada Attorney General had not stipulated it away," said the commissioner.
As for the road issue, "the judge took a county resolution and effectively made it into federal law," Carver said, adding that the judge only nullified the part of the road resolution that conflicted with federal law, while upholding county jurisdiction over roads established prior to 1976.
Roads will probably be one of the first issues to be addressed under the Tri-Party Framework for Interaction now being signed by Nye County, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The agreement calls for


 
implementation of NEPA and cooperative status for Nye County. It also establishes protocols for procedures on land use planning. According to the agreement it is in the best interest of all to join together in a coordinated effort to develop plans to maintain health, safety, a sustainable environment, a vital local economy and to enhance the quality of life.
Nye County Assistant District Attorney Rachel Nicholson said that the agreement is just the beginning of the process, with some details still to be worked out in future meetings. She said Nye County has signed the agreement and it now awaits federal agency signatures at a ceremony scheduled for January 10.
The Assistant U.S. Forest Service Supervisor for the Toiyabe National Forest, Monica Schwalback, said she is pleased with plans worked out to facilitate communications between the different entities.
"I think we agreed that it works a whole lot better when we all get together," she said, adding that physical meetings are much better than the old system of




phone, fax or letters. She cited instances where decisions were made on the ground, last summer, that were expedient and beneficial to both resources and the people involved. She said all parties to the agreement were committed to working together.
The federal agencies and the county will delegate core teams to work on issues. What will happen if there is a stalemate on a particular problem? No one seems to know. The agreement calls for kicking the matter up to the next level, such as U.S.F.S. supervisor or the county commission, but foresees no next step should a deadlock remain.
Most of the people involved expect resolution of the problems by the core teams and say consensus is the goal.
In any case, there is going to be a new approach to public land management in some counties in the West. The first meeting of Nye County's Tri-Party Framework for Interaction group is scheduled for January 10, 1997.


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