By Suzy Noecker, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation (Written May 2006)
Local governments are charged with protecting the health and welfare of their citizens. The presence of the wolf makes this charge hard to meet. The losses to the tax base caused by the loss of private property providing that base – whether it comes from the loss of a few head of livestock and wildlife or the loss of entire agricultural properties - is hard to replace. County governments are the first line of defense in a self-governing society. They are the government we can walk to. While involvement doesn’t always work out the way we want it to; the only way it fails is when we don’t participate.
County governments were represented at the Wolf Seminar, sponsored by the Wyoming Farm Bureau Foundation, by Doug Thompson, Fremont County Commissioner; Tim French, Park County Commissioner; and Lee Campbell, Hot Springs County Planner.
“The presence of the wolf has far reaching impacts on our county,” said Tim French. “Park County is known for world class hunting opportunities. Elk herds are being decimated; there are very few moose anymore. We are just now starting into our budgeting process, we set the budgets for everyone, the sheriff, county clerk, road and bridge, etc. So if you have a situation where people stop coming to Yellowstone because the wildlife is no longer there to attract them, we lose those tax dollars. Our budgets are based on lots of things; one of those is assessed valuations of property; if our producers get into trouble and need to subdivide their land; then the people who move out there demand public services; we will have to come up with money for roads and other infrastructure. The cumulative effect on local government means that maybe we can’t get that needed sheriff’s car; we won’t be able to fund that extra deputy. This affects everyone in the county.”
Fremont County has long history of strong county government
Fremont County Commissions have a long history of influencing federal activities through resolutions. “On March 12, 2002, the Fremont County Commission passed a series of resolutions regarding the wolf and the grizzly bear. We defined them as unacceptable species and that their presence would be prohibited in Fremont County,” said Doug Thompson.
“Our strategies to influence the wolves as well as the bear situation are predicated on our belief that government actions should be honorable and they should be in accordance with law, regulation and the rules which they themselves put down and carried out in good faith,” continued Thompson. “I bring that up here, because I believe we heard from the Governor and previous panels and will hear tomorrow that honorability and operating in good faith does not characterize anything about what we are talking about; any action on the wolf’s part. The problem with the county influencing the federal process is they get to make the decisions; so to influence process – we believe we have to use existing federal and state law to have any chance of bring satisfactory resolution to this situation.”
Counties can influence federal actions by developing a county land use plan
County resolutions, such as the undesirable species resolution are included in the Fremont County plan.
“The Federal government, through NEPA and their planning regulations are required to cooperate, coordinate and consult with local governments. Further, their actions are to be consistent to the greatest extent possible with local land use plans; so it was very important for Fremont County to draw the line in the sand – take the position formally and legally in what we believed,” said Thompson.
“If you don’t set a consistency standard, you can’t hold anyone to it. If there is no benchmark the federal government can do whatever they want. Occasionally, even if you set the benchmark, they will do whatever they want anyway; but that is partly the problem here. Further in this process, it was important for us to empower our county and redo our land use plan to address the wolf issue, federal grazing issues and other federal land issues. In the fall of 2003, by resolution, we established and empowered a new land use planning committee called the Fremont County Natural Resources Planning Committee. They were charged with the task of creating a land use plan that would define what our custom and culture of Fremont County is; learning what our economic supports are,” stated Thompson.
Land use planning goals
“The first step the committee took was to define their authorities. They cited specific federal laws and state laws that gave the committee and our commission the power to address custom and culture – again setting a benchmark that we believe defines our county. On September 7, 2004 we by resolution formally adopted our land use plan,” said Thompson.
“What did we hope to accomplish? I believe that these are the foundations that every county needs to take to establish its position in these federal planning processes. If we don’t, we fail to avail ourselves of the protections and the empowerment written directly in federal law by federal decision makers,” concluded Thompson. “Fremont County has been very active in defining cooperating agencies, which is a provision of NEPA, which requires local government participation in federal planning. Wyoming actually is the textbook case – the model other states and counties look at for how to be cooperating agencies to have influence.”
Impact to county government staff
Lee Campbell, County Planner in Hot Springs County addressed the organizational changes that have taken place in the local governments related to introduction of the wolf into northwestern Wyoming. “I am probably the only planner in Wyoming that is a half-time planner, half-time natural resource coordinator,” said Campbell. “We have, to a certain degree, organized our county to have the ability to work on these issues.”
“We have seen in the last year that in many issues, not just wildlife related, but things like above ground storage tanks, stormwater pollution plans, working with the Environmental Quality Council, the State Engineers Office, and so on, the workload has just increased dramatically. After doing this for a couple of years, I really do believe that our Wyoming counties are approaching a situation where we need a full-time county employee working on these issues,” said Campbell.
Hot Springs County has three commissioners to divide the workload. Some counties have five and can spread the work around more. As with most County Commissioners in Wyoming; the members of the Hot Springs County Commission all run their own businesses and take care of the obligations of county government.
“We’ve addressed the work (of county government) pretty much the same way that Fremont County did,” stated Campbell. “Actually, Ray Shaffer from the County Farm Bureau got us started drawing up our land use plan and Crosby Allen (Fremont County Commissioner at the time) came over and helped us get started – and we plagiarized some from Washakie County and we got a lot of help. We’re several thousand dollars into it – we’ve got a natural resource plan for (management of) state and federal lands that our commissioners adopted last April. We also established a natural resource planning committee with about 14 or 15 members that work on a whole variety of natural resource issues for the commissioners.”
Economic impacts of federal and state agency activities on a small Wyoming county
“Hot Springs County is in a separate situation from other Wyoming counties, except one; and that’s Niobrara. I’ve now worked with two of the bottom counties in the state, as far as economic activity, and it is a fact that Hot Springs County lost population between 2000 and 2004 – I believe Niobrara did too,” said Campbell.
“In Hot Springs County we have a very fragile economy based on just a few industries. Our oil and gas production has fallen off steadily – we’ve pretty much lost the sheep industry; there’s only about 3,000 head in the whole county now. In the National Forest we have virtually no beneficial use of it at all now as far as timber harvest or grazing – even limited outfitting,” continued Campbell. “That is of concern – we have to be more defensive – we can’t afford to give any more ground on any of these issues; whether it’s a threatened or endangered species, or job losses in the oil field.”
“We are considering having Tex Taylor from the University of Wyoming do a study for us like the one he did for Park County looking at the fiscal impacts to the tax base of Park County as their economy moved from a natural resource based economy to a service economy. It’s hard to plan for the future when you aren’t sure of the economic trend; one thing we are certain of; if we lose our ranchers and our outfitters the amount of sub-dividing in the county is going to increase exponentially. If these operators on the Absaroka Front are forced out of business – we will see massive subdividing; and UW studies indicate that for every tax dollar generated by home building on a 40 acre tract, it costs the county $2.50 in provision of services. Small counties do not have the funds coming in to build new infrastructure for subdivisions that are out where the ranches are,” concluded Campbell.