By Aaron West

The Bulletin

With the question of how to best manage the Ochoco National Forest currently a hot topic in Crook County, a group of concerned citizens is working to provide an answer, at least from a local perspective.

The Crook County Natural Resources PAC, a political action committee formed by county resident Craig Brookhart last month, aims to reserve a place for the county government at the negotiating table when it comes to how the county’s natural resources are managed. Recently proposed plans from Oregon Wild and the U.S. Forest Service concerning land use and access don’t take the county’s best interests into account, Brookhart said, and outside of making suggestions as to what those plans should contain, the county doesn’t have a mechanism to make sure its interests are included.

The Natural Resources PAC — which drew about 150 people to its first meeting Feb. 1 — aims to change that.

“If we don’t get together and decide what we want to do, someone will always be telling us what we should do,” said Brookhart, who is the chair of the PAC and is also running for county commissioner.

But deciding “what we want to do” is a tricky business when there are so many citizens with varying interests involved, not to mention the legal steps required to create and implement a local natural resource plan and a county government that’s taken an “observant stance” in regard to land use issues, according to the PAC’s mission statement.

Last year, Oregon Wild, a nonprofit formerly known as the Oregon Natural Resources Council, proposed creating a 312,000-acre national recreation area in the forest with 26,000 acres of designated wilderness. The proposal was met with widespread criticism in Crook County. The U.S. Forest Service last week began accepting public comments on its plan that would establish a 135-mile off-highway vehicle trail system in the forest, a plan that was also met with local opposition.

Creating a PAC, then a plan

More than 500 Crook County residents attended recent town hall meetings to discuss Oregon Wild’s proposal, so clearly local interest in how the forest is managed exists. But that many individual voices tend to drown each other out, Brookhart said. That’s why he opted to form the Crook County Natural Resources PAC.

“It became clear that if we were going to have a voice in the discussion what we really needed to do was get everybody together and unify,” he said.

Brookhart registered his political action committee with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office in order to create a group that aimed to unify the voices and enable the group to donate and accept money and hire an attorney to protect its members from litigation if necessary.

“We formed a PAC so that we actually had standing,” he said.

With the PAC created and bylaws established in early February, the committee could get down to the first — and essentially only — order of business: putting together a natural resources plan that could serve as a baseline for any management proposals that federal or state agencies come forward with in the future, U.S. Forest Service or otherwise.

Writing of the plan, which will propose locally approved guidelines regarding how the county’s natural resources can be used, is underway, and there are hundreds of people divided between 15 committees simultaneously working on the separate components of the plan. One committee is tackling the recreation element, for instance, while another is working on access issues. Local input is essential, Brookhart said, and the PAC is using as a starting point the already-adopted natural resource plans of Baker and Wallowa counties, as well as the guidance of some commissioners from those counties.

Such resource plans, like Baker County’s 44-page document, set up definitions and rules concerning access and activities that take place on public lands within the county. For example, Baker County’s plan states that in regard to access and travel management, proposed road closures affecting access to or on public lands in Baker County shall be discussed on a case-by-case basis and individually justified.

“Once you have a (natural resources plan), every single plan the Forest Service comes up with — whether it’s a travel management plan or an (off-highway vehicle) plan — any of those would have to be worked out with the county to suit the county’s needs, according to its plan,” said Baker County Commissioner Bill Harvey, who made a presentation at one of the PAC’s meetings earlier this month. “You want to design something that benefits the citizens of your county.”

“Baker County led on a lot of this,” Brookhart said. “They had a committee that worked on their plan roughly a year. We took their plan and started pulling in other plans, too, and included the work that we’re doing. Our goal was to divide and conquer by dividing it into sections.”

Because the PAC isn’t a government body and can only write a plan, not formally adopt one, the idea is to present a completed proposal to the Crook County Court by mid-April, Brookhart said, adding that the PAC is meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Bowman Museum in Prineville to give an update on each committee’s progress.

Coordination

Before any natural resources plan the county might adopt can be effective, Harvey said another piece of the puzzle needs to fall into place: The Crook County Court needs to implement “coordination” status, via an ordinance.

Coordination is a legal concept that’s described in the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which requires federal agencies to coordinate “land use inventory, planning and management actions” with any local government that has engaged in land use planning for federal lands in its jurisdiction. Baker County passed a coordination ordinance in 2001.

“Coordination status would put Crook County’s local government on equal footing with the federal government,” said Harvey, who gave a seminar on the matter to the Crook County Natural Resources PAC.

“You issue a declaration that you’re a coordinating county, and then all state and federal governments have to work with the county on their land use plans,” he said, clarifying that counties have to have the staff and ability to coordinate with the government. “You can’t just push off a plan on them.”

“Without coordination, counties can ask the federal government to allow them to work with them, but that’s called cooperation, and there’s no law about that,” Harvey said. “That means the county has no say in stopping the government (from moving forward with a proposal).”

Whether or not the Crook County Court will vote on implementing coordination status or adopt the PAC’s plan remains to be seen. Brookhart said that commissioners have expressed varying levels of support.

County Commissioner Seth Crawford said he’s very interested in the idea and is taking a proactive approach to the PAC.

“It sounds like it’s a really good way to work on a level playing field with the Forest Service and the BLM,” he said, adding that he’d met with Harvey for more than hour, discussing county coordination and the new plan. “It’s a great opportunity to have the voice of the community heard locally, at a national level.”

Other Crook County commissioners could not be reached Sunday.

Brookhart spoke about the PAC’s natural resources plan at a Crook County Court meeting at the beginning of February, and he said a completed plan will be presented to the court when it’s ready.

“When I testified to the county court, I told them that they were going to get a gift — a natural resources plan,” he said. “And with a hundred or so people working on it, it’s very unusual to have that many people involved. That means it’s important and they’re passionate about it.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,

awest@bendbulletin.com

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