Report On The National Association of
Counties Legislative Conference
By Joel Bousman
I attended the National Association of Counties (NACO) Legislative Conference in Washington D.C. Feb. 10-16, where I serve as chairman of the NACO Public Lands Steering Committee and on the NACO Board of Directors. The purpose of public lands committee is to recommend policy to the NACO Board of Directors, providing direction to NACO staff on behalf of all counties in the U.S. in regards to supporting local government input into federal lands management.
Much of the discussion in our public lands committee was in regards to catastrophic wildfire. The public lands committee and NACO Board of Directors adopted two resolutions on wildfires.
“NACO supports long-term federal funding of shared stewardship agreements and work because of the imminent need to address the issue of unwanted fires threatening critical watersheds and vulnerable communities,” and “NACO urges the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to partner with counties to implement the Confronting the Wildfire Crisis 10-year strategy by ensuring funding is available for forest health projects most impacting community health and safety. Due to the high risk existing for communities located in the wildland-urban interface, NACO asks at least 10 percent of the funds allocated in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) be used in direct coordination with counties which border or have USFS land in their jurisdiction.”
In regards to addressing wildfire and the need for active forest management, our committee was informed by the USFS concerning the large amount of funding coming with the recent bills passed in Congress, including the IIJA. Counties with active forest collaboratives in place work with forests which have a long-term management strategy in place, as well as with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in order to move forward with projects on the ground, which will likely have a higher priority for funding, especially with projects addressing forest management in the wildland-urban interface.
Sublette County is in the process of updating the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and hopefully will be in a good position to receive funding to implement this plan moving forward. This will mean working across all land ownerships for stewardship projects enhancing forest health to reduce the risk of wildfire.
The Sublette County Forest Collaborative met on March 24. There was an update on existing ongoing projects and a short discussion about the 10-year strategy recently developed by the USFS. Forest Collaborative is in the process of scheduling the next collaborative meeting, hopefully in April, to get a detailed presentation of the 10-year strategy on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
There are a lot of details to be addressed before we really accomplish substantial projects. Sublette County, Sublette County Conservation District and State Forestry are committed to help enhance active management on the Bridger-Teton. The Bureau of Land Management will be engaged as well. One priority for the county will be to identify what can be done to address implementation of our Community Wildfire Protection Plan we are nearing the end of updating.
Redefining the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) is the Biden administration’s goal of expanding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ authority in regulating water. Under the Clean Water Act Section 101 (b), the U.S. Congress explicitly sets policy to recognize, preserve and protect the primary responsibilities and rights of states to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution of land and water resources.
Counties interpret this to mean all surface, underground, flood and atmospheric waters within the boundaries of a state are the property of the state for the use of its people. The NACO Board of Directors adopted a policy resolution opposing broadening the definition of WOTUS to expand federal jurisdiction.
I served on a panel with EPA and Army Corp officials in which I pointed out Wyoming has strong state laws protecting our soil and water. Wyoming’s laws are even stronger than the federal Clean Water Act, as are many other states as well. Our focus should be on strengthening local and state laws to protect land and water. We know the situation on the ground better than anybody in Washington ever could. Federal agencies should focus on working with state and local governments, rather than expanding federal jurisdiction.
It is important for us as counties to participate with the EPA and Army Corp as they finalize any WOTUS rule with a strong statement supporting state and local primacy on this issue, which we’ve had primary control over since the founding of our republic.
The NACO Board of Directors also passed a resolution in regards to the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative, also known as “30×30.” NACO takes issue with the fact this initiative lacks a clear definition of conservation, and setting a land use policy is uniquely a county authority.
Agricultural lands in production should not be at risk of having restrictive land use designations placed on them to achieve a 30 percent conservation goal. I served on a panel discussion with Department of Interior officials in which I pointed out conservation and preservation are two completely different concepts.
I gave two examples of conservation which counties could support. I explained, for example, a federal grazing allotment in which the permittee is working with the agency range staff to properly monitor the impact of livestock grazing and where the allotment is trending toward or meeting the monitoring objectives, as well as other multiple use objectives, then the allotment should be considered “conserved” for purposes of this initiative.
I pointed out a forest which is being actively managed, including timber sales, stewardship contracts for thinning purposes, addressing the needs of the wildland-urban interface and benefitting multiple use activities, including wildlife habitat, should be considered “conserved.” I pointed out more wilderness designation is not conservation and will be strongly opposed by Western counties.
I also served on a panel including Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) in which I stressed the importance of continued funding of Payment in Lieu of Taxes, known as PILT, and for funding of the Secure Rural Schools program, known as SRS. Both of these programs are permanently authorized, but not permanently funded, which means counties have to continue to lobby Congress to make sure they are funded each year.
This is important for us in Sublette County, as we receive approximately $900,000 annually in PILT funding. We also use the SRS funding to pay for our search and rescue helicopter contract each year. Our search and rescue volunteers have saved many lives by having this resource available here in Sublette County.
There is much more information on activities and policy positions on the NACO website if anyone is interested in learning more about what they do to represent counties. What I am reporting on is just a tiny fraction of what NACO does on behalf of county government. Thank you.
Joel Bousman is the Sublette County commissioner. He continues to be active and involved in agriculture issues at the local, state and federal level. He can be reached at Joel.Bousman@sublettewyo.com.