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What is WIR and What is the Organization’s Objective?

Written by Joel Bousman

As a Commissioner in Sublette County, I appreciate the Wyoming Livestock Roundup for giving me the opportunity to inform your readers about the Western Interstate Region (WIR), a regional affiliate of the National Association of Counties (NACo). Local systems of government in the western states are continually challenged with how to effectively address issues stemming from the massive federal ownership of land in the West. Our state of Wyoming is nearly 50 percent under federal control. Starting in the 1940s, efforts were made to charter an affiliate within NACo, to provide the western states a platform to advocate our concerns. By 1978, this alliance became the Western Interstate Region or the WIR.

Today, WIR comprises 15 western states and is dedicated to the promotion of the western states’ interests. It is the organized association for elected county officials, advocating within the national association for public policy affecting the West. WIR emphasizes public land use and conservation issues; community stability and economic development; and the promotion of our traditional western way of life. The Board of Directors of WIR has recently established several advocacy priorities, such as wildfire, infrastructure, development, access and funding.

Catastrophic wildfire is now a top priority for WIR. The cost of fire suppression is consuming 60 percent of the entire operating budget for the Forest Service. To address the wildfire problem and its devastating impact, both WIR and NACo strongly support H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. The House of Representatives passed this bill on Nov. 1, 2017 by a vote of 232-188 but is still waiting for Senate action. This legislation promotes the active management of our federal lands and forests to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and it promotes a collaborative approach to natural resource management challenges. Most notably, this legislation requires the costs and benefits of a proposed forest project to be weighed against the costs of doing nothing. It addresses wildfire threats, disease and insect infestation and these impacts on local water supplies, wildlife habitat, recreation, livestock grazing and other multiple uses of public lands.

WIR supports initiatives to strengthen local infrastructure in the West by promoting local decision making in transportation investments, improving infrastructure safety and maintaining and enhancing local financing options. WIR also supports policies that expand local access to public lands, and it promotes investment in and development of a modern, high-speed communications infrastructure in western communities.

Other important priorities are to encourage access to western lands along with the responsible development of western resources. Public access to federal lands and responsible development of natural resources, including those on public land, is crucial to our economies and maintaining the custom and culture of our communities. WIR promotes policies that foster the sustainable development and active management of natural resources in the West as a means of promoting community economic growth, job creation and the long-term viability of communities.

One of the most important factors that WIR addresses is a certainty in federal county payments. Counties provide many services on public lands within their boundaries, specifically law enforcement, search and rescue and miles of county roads providing public access. Since counties cannot tax public lands, the Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program was generated to compensate counties for the services they provide on tax-exempt federal lands within their borders. WIR also promotes legislative efforts to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program, which affords compensation payments, to bridge the gap, because of significant declines in federal revenue sharing within the National Forest System. This was enacted as a result of the spotted owl controversy, shutting down the forest products industry. Prior to the spotted owl adversity, counties received 25 percent of the revenue generated by the sale of forest products.

WIR strongly supports counties serving as cooperating agencies, alongside the federal agencies, especially during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Wyoming commissioners have led the effort within WIR to encourage commissioners to actively engage as cooperating agencies.

Doug Thompson, a former Fremont County commissioner and effective member of WIR, has spent countless hours working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in developing the “BLM Desk Guide for Cooperating Agency and Coordination.”

We continually advise counties to develop natural resource plans within their counties as a means to require the federal agencies to coordinate with these local plans.

Under the previous administration, a BLM initiative, which they referred to as “Planning 2.0,” actually diluted the input of local governments in the planning process. WIR objected strongly to this initiative and went to great effort with the help of our Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) to coordinate comments opposing this initiative. Now, with the repeal of “Planning 2.0” by President Trump, the Interior Secretary Zinke has instructed BLM to work with local and state government to actually improve the planning process. With this welcome change, counties should have more opportunity to actively engage with BLM. This is evidenced by the recent list of top 10 priorities introduced by Secretary Zinke. These priorities include sustainable development of energy and natural resources; restoring trust and working as a good neighbor; increasing revenues to support the Interior Department and national interests; and protecting our citizens and the national borders.

Other important objectives are to strike a regulatory balance and to modernize infrastructure. This administration hopes this will reorder the Department of Interior for the next 100 years as a means to move decision making closer to the ground.

WIR has recently launched an effort working cooperatively with the Western Governors Association (WGA) on common issues such as the need to make changes to the Endangered Species Act along with actively managing our forest resources.

I believe that this cooperative effort with WGA has the potential for the WIR to become even more effective. As President of WIR, I believe that the best natural resource decisions are always made with stakeholders working together with our federal managers at the local level.