Skagit County Government and National Public Lands Timothy Manns, 9/26/2018
SummarySkagit County is blessed with having within its borders a wealth of public lands, from local, county, and state parks and forestlands to large areas of national forest, a national park and several designated wilderness areas. The health and quality of life of Skagit residents benefit greatly from these public lands. People move here because of them. Thousands of visitors come from afar to enjoy them too and support the tourist economy while here. Yet over the years Skagit County Commissioners have often failed to develop constructive, collaborative relationships particularly with the managers of the nationally owned public lands. It has often appeared that the County Commissioners only look on these protected places that belong to all Americans as simply so many missed opportunities for private profits and local revenue. A county council of 5-7 part-time members under a charter form of government would offer broader perspectives on the relationship between the county and the public land managing agencies.
BackgroundAmong Skagit County’s many distinctions and an important part of its geographical diversity is the presence within its boundaries of part of a major national forest and a large national park. Both the park and the forest, by Congressional designation, have millions of acres protected as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. National parks and forests belong to all the people of the United States. They are part of the common heritage of all Americans and, for that reason, are managed by federal agencies acting on behalf of all of us. Many thousands of local and regional residents visit North Cascades National Park and the national recreation areas, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan, administered with it by the National Park Service. People come as well from many other states and countries to see this park that has the highest concentration of glaciers in the U.S. outside Alaska. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest similarly hosts many thousands of visitors. Park and forest visitors comprise an important part of the tourism economy of Skagit and adjacent counties.
Given the pride that many Skagit County residents take in our nearby national park and forest, it was a surprise and a shock to learn in 2017 that our County Commissioners were spending public money for our county to be a member of the American Lands Council. The council’s focus is on claiming state and local control over nationally-owned public lands. It lobbies in primarily western state capitols for the passage of bills claiming such control despite settled legal opinion. In the case of Washington and other western states, the state constitution includes a clause explicitly giving up state claims to these nationally-owned lands. The principals, past and present, in the American Lands Council have ties to extremist militia groups and voiced support for the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Under the pressure of publicity and concerted local opposition, the Skagit County Commissioners did not renew our county’s membership.
However, public records requests subsequently revealed that Skagit County had long been paying a Washington, D.C., lobbyist whose stock in trade is pushing for county authority over national public lands; i.e. “county supremacy.” When publicly questioned, our Commissioners stated that the lobbyist’s work involved advocating for two programs from which counties with national public lands within their boundaries receive payments. These are the “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” program and the “Secure Rural Schools” program. Both programs disburse payments to counties based on a formula. The amount a county receives is not determined by how much, or how little, or whether they invest in a lobbyist. Public records show that the lobbyist we were paying for was in fact pursuing an agenda of making county supremacy a requirement; i.e. that professional federal land managers would be required to defer to the judgment of local elected officials in how national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, etc. are managed. This same lobbyist also works towards the delisting of national monument and other aspects of the far Right’s anti-public lands agenda. This is not in alignment with the values and interests of most Skagit County residents.
Over the years, the taxpayers of Skagit County, at the direction of the County Commissioners, paid more than $250,000 to this lobbyist, stopping only after concerted public opposition. There have probably been exceptions, but Skagit County Commissioners by and large have failed, and continue to fail, to have a positive working relationship with the managers of the nationally owned public lands that fall within Skagit’s boundaries. This goes along with their apparent inability or unwillingness to see any value in these lands other than what might be obtained for private profit or tax revenue through logging, mining, and other resource extraction. The fact that these lands contribute hugely to the quality of life of Skagit’s citizens, that they are the common property and heritage of all Americans, that they support the tourism economy, that they play an important role in watershed protection and carbon sequestration - - - all these values appear to be lost on our commissioners.
The leadership of 3 elected, full-time commissioners has clearly not brought us the breadth of experience, understanding, and knowledge necessary to adequately manage this diverse county. There would be a greater chance of the needed competence with an elected council of 5 to 9 part-time members. More people from more varied backgrounds would be able to run for part-time positions and bring to bear points of view that Skagit County’s leaders have rarely demonstrated.