Commissioner lobbies leaders in Washington
HAMILTON, MT - 3/10/03– His involvement in public lands issues earned
him a spot on a committee that went to Washington, D.C., last week.
And Alan Thompson didn’t pass up the chance to both listen to and
bend the ears of a few other county commissioners, federal officials
and Western lawmakers.
Thompson, a county commissioner, attended the National Association
of Counties’ annual legislative conference as a Montana representative
to the commissioner group’s public lands steering committee.
About 10 Montana commissioners attended the conference in committees
that include public lands, health, transportation and economic development.
At one meeting Thompson attended, Interior Secretary Gale Norton addressed
the group. Her talk included encouraging counties to develop “cooperating
agency status” with the Forest Service and other federal landowners.
“She said, ‘You are the people who understand what’s happening on
a local level and you need to be involved and work with us, and you
need to develop this cooperating agency status so your input is heard
on a national level,’” he said.
Commissioners met with aides to Senators Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and
Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a key
Bush administration official who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.
Thompson said he told Rey and congressional aides his concerns, including
that Ravalli County has not been fully paid for hundreds of thousands
of dollars in road and other infrastructure damages incurred during
fire suppression efforts in 2000, according to the commissioner, and
that he is concerned that $25.5 million earmarked for planting trees
and restoring burned lands in the Bitterroot but diverted to help
fight fires in 2002 appears to be only partially reimbursed by Congress.
“The other problem that exists is that the amount of money for fighting
fires for this season has not been increased,” the commissioner said
He worries that if fires again grow big and costly, the Bitterroot
may again be called on to help pay the costs at the expense of rehabilitation
on burned lands.
“It could become a vicious cycle,” he said.
Thompson said he also told Rey he hopes upcoming revisions of national
forest plans will be a speedier process, in part by dealing with possible
citizen appeals upfront.
In a room flush with Secret Service officers, commissioners heard
from first lady Laura Bush, who talked about the president’s Preserve
America initiative and spoke directly to the Lewis and Clark bi-centennial
and efforts related to the commemoration in Lemhi County, Idaho, birthplace
of the Shoshone guide Sacajawea.
“She seemed to be a very gracious lady,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, Montana’s commissioners met with the state’s congressional
delegates, and Thompson also reiterated many of his thoughts and concerns
about federal lands management and how it affects counties.
“In the same way, I hope I was able to talk to other people from other
states about our experiences in the fires of 2000,” Thompson said.
“In fact that was one of the main reasons I was put on the public
lands steering committee, because I have a story to tell about the
experience of the fires of 2000.”
Commissioners from across the country attended the conference, where
they tried to hammer out resolutions for adoption into a platform
later this year that will be used to lobby Congress on behalf of counties
Among positions the commissioners want Congress to support is full
funding of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program to counties with federal
lands (Congress allocated the funding at about 60 percent last year,
Thompson said) and Bush’s hotly debated Healthy Forests Initiative,
which pushes for more thinning and logging in fire-prone forests.
Thompson pointed out, Ravalli County did not foot the bill for his
attendance at the conference. The Montana Coalition of Forest Counties,
a committee under the Montana Association of Counties did.
The commissioner emphasized that he was at the conference representing
all counties in Montana and to an extent counties nationwide.
“Number one, I hope that it benefits Ravalli County. Number two, I
hope it benefits, what I did back there, all of the public lands in
the United States,” Thompson said.
Reporter Buddy Smith can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.