PRINEVILLE — Elected officials in a a rural Oregon county rejected a proposed plan on Tuesday from a group of residents that sought greater local control over the management of federal lands.
The development came as local officials in the West are wrestling with ways to have greater say in how the vast swaths of federal land are managed.
The issue came to a head in adjacent Harney County, where an armed group from out of state seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and held it for 41 days.
About half of Crook County in Central Oregon is public land, most of it managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.
Passing the proposed Crook County Natural Resources Plan would create an "adversarial relationship" with federal agencies, BLM District Manager Carol Benkosky warned the three-member Crook County Court. About 100 spectators packed the meeting room in Prineville, the county seat.
The plan, drafted by a political action committee, would have ostensibly required the county court to be involved in "coordination" with federal agencies in managing hundreds of thousands of acres of forests and watersheds, prohibited retirement of grazing allotments and called for "the forest industry and the forest products commerce within the county" to be strengthened. Opponents of the plan said it had no legal basis.
Tyson Bertone-Riggs, federal forest health coordinator of the Oregon Department of Forestry, also said it would result in more litigation and "blocking actions" instead of moving things forward. He and other officials instead trumpeted consultations early and often between agencies and local stakeholders.
Resident Darlene Harpster got up and spoke on behalf of the plan, and denounced what she said was over-regulation by the U.S. government.
"The only thing I want to say is I want my freedom," she said. "Government agencies want more regulation ... I don't."
At stake is the economic well-being of Crook County, which is 2½ times the size of Rhode Island, and other parts of the West that have been hit by restrictions on timber harvesting on federal lands and other regulations.
One woman who went to the microphones to speak about the plan indicated emotions have been running high.
The court voted 2-1 to reject the plan, with those opposed saying it could conflict at times with an existing county plan. The court suggested supporters refine it and submit it to the planning commission as a possible addition to the existing plan.
"This is an opportunity for the citizens of Crook County to have their voices heard," county commissioner Seth Crawford, who voted for the plan, told The Associated Press. "So what I think we need to do as a county is listen, and try to use our natural resources more effectively."
Tom Case, a backer of the plan, said the issue is not over.
"This has been an ongoing battle," he said. "I didn't expect it to end today."