Unpacking Bonner County’s Natural Resource Plan

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff Writer

The final draft of the proposed Bonner County Natural Resource Plan is available for review and public comment from now until the Jan. 17 public hearing where county commissioners are meant to adopt the document.

The plan, in its current form, has been on a four-year journey through commissioners, committee members and countless drafts.

“This plan is meant to create an interface with federal government agencies to work with county officials in making certain as much as they possibly can that the federal government can coordinate and correlate plans with the county,” said Natural Resource Committee Chairman Cornel Rasor in a workshop on Oct. 25. The federal coordination clause is meant to urge federal and state agencies to consider the county’s desires when the area’s natural resources are in question.

“It’s a guide specification for what we’d love to see if there was unlimited funds and unlimited resources and the Forest Service was just super flexible,” said County Commissioner Dan McDonald. “That being said, it is non-binding. We can’t force (state or federal agencies) to do anything they don’t want to do.”

It’s this point specifically, that the NRP is “non-binding,” that has some community members confused about the document’s real purpose.

Shannon Williamson, executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and Sandpoint City Council president, said she’s read the document a number of times with a special interest in the water-related portion.

“I understand the intent of (the plan), but it’s not clear to me how any of it would be enforced,” Williamson said. “The commissioners desire state and federal agencies to treat them as an equal partner when making regulatory decisions that would affect the county, but (at) the end of the day the state and federal regulations are what are actually enforceable.”

For Williamson, it’s a question of a use of resources. While she understands every member of the NRC is a volunteer, she’s curious why the county spent four years on a document they call “non-binding.”

“The commissioners are advocates for less regulation and interference in people’s lives, but this is an extensively long document that I don’t see adds any value, so it seems counterintuitive,” Williamson said of the 96-page draft. “I try to put myself in their shoes. If they’re really trying to be advocates for their constituents and protect their private property interests, I understand that, but is this how you do it?”

Sandpoint native and private citizen Herbert Wiens believes it is. He worked for two decades in the timber industry and said he has attended nearly all of the NRC’s meetings over the past four years. He said the argument that the meetings, held every third Friday of the month, weren’t advertised holds no weight. They were well advertised, he argues, and people of all political leanings attended to varying degrees.

“So the environmentalist side of things knew about (the meetings),” Wiens said, noting that he sat next to such community members on a number of occasions. “Usually they only came if there was a Forest Service person or something that may have piqued their interest there, but for the actual nuts and bolts stuff, some of them did show up.”

He said he has watched the committee members agonize over incredibly small details, like the uses of “shoulds” and “shalls,” throughout the document. He said that at the suggestion of meeting attendees and county commissioners, the document has seen a lot of collaborative change.

“The county’s position isn’t ‘thou shalt not do this.’ It’s kind of, ‘talk to us before you do do it and get our opinion on it because it does affect us,’” he said, adding that the main purpose of the plan is to have the county’s positions “pre-thought-out” ahead of time. “It’s kind of like having a fire evacuation plan for your house. Everybody needs to know where they’re going so that we know what’s going to happen.”

Carol Jenkins is all for having a plan — though she said she has urged the commissioners to treat the plan as a reference, not an adopted piece of local policy. In a recent letter to the commissioners, she wrote: “The BCNRC has put a great deal of effort into this, it does represent the viewpoints of some members of the county, but it does not represent the perspectives of the entire county or the experts we have available to us.” The letter detailed specific parts of the plan she felt could use changes.

Jenkins, a retired nurse with a passion for land usage issues, has been involved in past natural resource issues in Bonner County due to her involvement with Friends of Scotchman Peaks and the Native Plant Society.

She said she’s a fan of past collaboration efforts in the area, one example being the Panhandle Forest Collaborative. She’d like to see the commissioners take that approach, rather than the coordination route, which she said encourages state and federal agencies to consult with the commissioners prior to introducing projects to the public.

“I think what this (plan) is trying to do is make a statement. It’s telling the federal and the state governments that ‘we believe in local control of federal and state lands, (and) we want a seat at the table and you better consult us,’” she said. “I think it’s also a statement to the public and environmental agencies that (the commissioners) consider they have better expertise to make decisions on natural resources than we do. It is also speaking to the ultra-right saying ‘we got your back and we’re representing you.’”

Read the NRP, currently in its final-draft form, at bonnercounty.us/bonner-county-natural-resources-committee.

Anyone who wants to provide comments to the commissioners in regards to the plan can submit comments to the Commissioners Office at 1500 Hwy 2, Suite 308, Sandpoint, ID 83864 or email [email protected]

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