Garfield County contract with property rights group gets criticism
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Garfield County commissioners are turning to a Texas-based private property rights organization to assist in their efforts to influence a federal land management decision aimed at protecting the greater sage grouse.
But the commissioners’ decision Monday to sign a contract for services with the nonprofit American Stewards of Liberty was criticized by some local citizens who question the organization’s motives and its ties to the oil and gas industry.
The organization, according to its website (http://americanstewards.us), bills itself as a defender of private property rights that also trains local governments on how to work with federal and state agencies on regulatory issues related to public lands.
Commissioners voted 2-0 at Monday’s meeting to contract with the organization for an amount not to exceed $20,000.
The county has an existing sage grouse working plan that was developed locally in cooperation with state wildlife officials four years ago. Commissioners want to have that plan included as part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s planned Environmental Impact Statement, which will outline measures for protecting the bird and its habitat.
The greater sage grouse thrives in the remote sagebrush-covered regions of northwest Colorado, including a large part of western Garfield County. The management plan will affect public lands in a nine-state region.
A formal EIS, including a preferred management plan, is due out in early 2013. The plan is in response to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deadline of 2015 to decide whether to propose the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“In the end, what we want to do is figure out what’s best for the sage grouse and also for our constituents,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.
“I believe everyone is in agreement that it would be best not to have the sage grouse listed,” he said. “What we’re saying is that we have a local program, which has buy-in from local landowners and the Division of Parks and Wildlife that, in my opinion, will do a better job of protecting the species.”
Jankovsky said American Stewards of Liberty has valuable expertise in teaching local governments how to use their collaborative powers under federal law to help steer public lands management issues.
Commissioner Mike Samson joined Jankovsky in supporting the move. Commissioner John Martin was absent from Monday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting while attending a National Association of Counties annual conference in Pittsburgh.
Some critics say American Stewards is merely a front for corporate interests.
“By aligning with this organization, you are clearly taking one side over another, and at taxpayers’ expense,” Glenwood Springs political activist Anita Sherman said.
Added Bob Millette, also of Glenwood Springs, “This group is known to take strongly partisan positions, and you are not representing your constituents in doing this.”
About a half dozen other citizens joined in asking the commissioners to postpone the decision until more can be learned about the organization.
Of particular concern, they said, is the group’s alleged ties to the corporate-backed conservative lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
ALEC’s nonprofit status has been questioned by the political watchdog group Common Cause, which claims ALEC is a front for corporate lobbying interests.
“There are some questions about who this organization really represents,” Sherman said of American Stewards.
The decision was also criticized by Aleks Briedis, a Democratic candidate for the county commissioner who will face Commissioner Samson, a Republican, in November.
“It worries me that the commissioners would bring a national organization out to help with a local issue such as land use,” Briedis said. “I believe there is enough knowledge locally to be able to go through the collaboration process that they’re trying to go through.”
On a political note, he added, “We didn’t elect our county commissioners to challenge national land-use and be the industries’ lobbying voice on our dime.”
Glenwood Springs resident and city councilman Stephen Bershenyi said he would question the commissioners just the same if it were a liberal group they chose to work with.
“We have a long history of relying on ourselves to take care of our own needs,” he said. “This group purports to come and teach you how to do this, when the information is out there if you’d go out and do your homework.”
On a related note, county commissioners are scheduled to meet with BLM District Manager Jim Cagney and other representatives in a work session this afternoon to discuss the greater sage grouse EIS planning process. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the county administration building in Glenwood Springs.
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