Shoshone forest supervisor looks to end dispute with county

2011-11-09T00:00:00Z Shoshone forest supervisor looks to end dispute with county

By MARTIN KIDSTON

Gazette Wyoming Bureau

The Billings Gazette
November 09, 2011 12:00 am  • 

CODY, Wyo. — Shoshone National Forest Supervisor Joe Alexander addressed Park County Commissioners on Tuesday, looking to end a longstanding squabble over a county consultant and the role they play during the forest’s planning process.

Alexander, who came off vacation hoping to settle the dispute, said his decision to keep Ecosystems Research Group from participating directly in Shoshone National Forest planning talks was based in part on a legal ruling from the Office of Government Council.

Alexander also said members of the public, including some cooperator groups involved in the planning process, had taken offense to ERG and its tactics at past meetings.

Some have also questioned why ERG counted as a cooperator when other groups or individuals did not.

“I did have concerns about the role ERG was playing at those meetings,” Alexander told commissioners. “I was not hearing from the commissioners at those meetings, and the attendance of commissioners was dropping off drastically.

“It was pretty much us and ERG having discussions, and that’s not my idea of effective cooperator meetings.”

Commissioners have contracted ERG, a for-profit consulting group based in Missoula, to represent them during planning talks with federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Park County, along with Big Horn, Hot Springs and Washakie counties, have paid the firm more than $500,000 over the past two years to represent them in the process.

Commissioners have come under fire for doling out such a hefty sum to a firm that’s been criticized for presenting biased information to the public in an attempt to sway opinion in the counties’ favor.

But commissioners have argued that ERG is needed to create a good plan. They maintained that stance Tuesday during talks with Alexander.

“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers to come up with the best plan possible,” Commissioner Joe Tilden said. “I could come to a meeting and listen to you folks, and I’ll be honest with you, you could spin this however you want and I’d probably believe you, because I don’t have the expertise.

“I’m just looking for someone with the professional expertise to make sure we’re represented and get a good plan.”

Alexander repeated throughout Tuesday’s talks that ERG can still play a role in the planning process and still inform the county.

He also has offered to meet with ERG outside the formal planning process if the firm has information to offer on behalf of cooperators.

“We don’t want to exclude you from having a consultant play a role,” Alexander said. “There are ways you can use ERG to your advantage.”

Commissioner Tim French and Tilden said ERG has played a critical role during past planning efforts. The two commissioners praised the firm for allegedly proving “beyond a shadow of doubt” that the BLM had used faulty data when drafting its plan.

They said ERG offers good science, even when government agencies fail to do so. The accusation proved as a point of contention between Alexander and commissioners.

“ERG has wildlife experts,” French said at one point. “We can ask them. They can provide that science that says, no, the Forest Service isn’t correct.”

Alexander appeared to take offense.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to side with Wyoming Game and Fish, not ERG, when it comes to wildlife issues,” he said.

“When ERG is going to challenge a wildlife issue and Game and Fish is sitting at the table with all of their data from the state of Wyoming, they have expertise, I believe, that far exceeds the capacity of ERG.”

While the talks were slated to last 15 minutes, the discussion went on for nearly an hour before Commissioner Bucky Hall intervened.

Hall said that while he’s not completely pleased with Alexander’s decision, he was willing to live with it and move on.

Commissioner Dave Burke agreed.

“I believe the cooperators themselves have the expertise to follow this plan through to a good process and a good end result,” Burke said. “Alexander has made it clear about his understanding and the (regional office’s) understanding of (federal law) and how it pertains to ERG. We may or may not agree with that, but that’s where we are.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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