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CODY, Wyo. — Park County commissioners agreed Tuesday to retain the services of Ecosystems Research Group and have the consultant draft the county's response to the Shoshone National Forest's new draft management plan.

In a 4-1 vote, commissioners agreed to pay the Missoula-based consultant a fee to prepare the county's comments to the Forest Service. Commissioners could not say exactly how much it would cost to have ERG write the comments.

But unlike their 700-page response to the Bureau of Land Management's draft plan last fall, commissioners said that their comments to the Forest Service would be brief and the costs of having ERG write them would be "minimal."

"ERG has been a good partner with Park County," said Commissioner Tim French. "I know we've spent a lot of money with them. Our goal is just to get a good document. They're providing what we are asking them to provide, and there's a cost to that. The public is going to have to make that determination on whether it's wise or not."

Park, Hot Springs, Big Horn and Washakie counties have come under scrutiny lately for the rising costs of having ERG represent them in talks with the BLM, the Forest Service and the National Park Service.

Between October 2008 and June 2011, the four counties spent more than $458,600 to retain ERG. Around $330,000 has come from the state's Federal Natural Resource Policy Account.

Jeremiah Rieman, natural resource policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, said late last week that the state may soon change to the way it manages the account.

Area legislators also told commissioners that it was getting harder to defend the counties' repeated use of the state fund.

Commissioners maintained Tuesday that the firm's services have been vital in working with the three federal agencies and pushing for the best outcome in their separate land-use plans.

"Usually, when you hire a consultant, philosophically, there's some level of trust that they'll be professionals," Commissioner Buck Hall said. "If they stop acting in a professional manner and you feel you're being overbilled, you get rid of them and get a new consultant."

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The Shoshone National Forest released a 100-page preliminary draft last month and gave county co-operators and the public several weeks to review it and offer comment before the planning process moves to the next phase.

Because the plan is only in draft form, Park County Commissioner Dave Burke said he didn't feel it was necessary to have ERG write the comments, at least without knowing the costs up-front.

"This is a preliminary draft, and these comments won't be extensive, or I hope they wouldn't be extensive," Burke said. "My whole point is that approving something, with no idea of what it costs, isn't very prudent."

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

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