Commissioner lobbies leaders in Washington

Ravalli Republic

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 Friday.

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 nationwide.

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


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