Western Counties Alliance talk PILT, sage grouse with Lander County commissioners

Executive Director Ken Brown of Western Counties Alliance and Public Lands gave an update on various programs to Lander County commissioners. 

Brown emphasized the value of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program and said his top item to discuss was PILT because of the importance of the program and what it means to counties.

The National Association of Counties states that because local governments are unable to tax the property values or products derived from federal lands, PILT payments are necessary to support essential local government services. 

Brown compared two years and stated, “The total appropriation for 2018 is $553 million, and the total appropriation for 2019 is $514 million, which is a $39 million decrease.

Brown said, “I don’t know whether it was just a budget reduction or whether the federal sequester created the decrease; but nevertheless, Lander County has come out OK. Your 2018 pay was $1,024,407, and your 2019 pay, which has just happened, is $1,047,460 – below a $23,000 increase – so that’s good news.”

“Counties need PILT in order to help pay for the valuable, expensive services that you provide on public land in Lander County,” said Brown. “PILT is a fairly secure program; there’s an educational process ongoing as to what the program means to counties by various groups – lobbying groups, state associations – helping make PILT a secure program.”

The Secure Rural Schools Program is not a very secure program, said Brown. 

“The 2019 total appropriation is $231,464,875; the 2018 total appropriation was $267,683,050. That follows the SRS formula, as when there is a re-authorization of the SRS program, the following year there will be a decrease. When the SRS formula was changed, that’s how the feds set it up. Lander County’s pay in 2018 was $110, 397; in 2019 the pay was $93,387 – approximately $17,000 less, and that’s disappointing, but that’s how the program works.” 

Brown stated the program was not very secure because years ago, there was sufficient natural resource production on forest land for the revenue to be there. “As you know, timber harvest, mining, oil, gas, a lot of that has been curtailed; therefore, there isn’t sufficient revenue. The 1908 contract with SRS between states and feds, 50% of the revenue went to states, then the states shared 25% of that revenue with counties. Well, the revenue is not there, so if you’re not going to allow good production of natural resources on forest land, then you’ve got to come up with some revenue to fill in the gap,” said Brown. 

Regarding the Geothermal Program, he won’t have numbers for 2019 until November. “The pay for Lander County in 2017 was $303,731; the 2018 pay was $283,264, a little over $20,000 decrease,” stated Brown, who added that geothermal continues to be a good, clean source of energy and the state for 2018 overall increased by $66,190, so some of the counties had a good increase, and they will continue to monitor that program.

Brown asked the commissioners where they were at with their RS2477 Roads Project. County Manager Keith Westengard said they were moving forward with it and have photographs done but need to start taking pictures to document each road. 

Commissioner Art Clark asked Brown if drones were a viable means of documenting the RS2477 roads process, and Brown stated as an inventory process, that would be a good way. Commissioner Bryan Sparks said he thought they had completed an inventory process in 2010, and Westengard said he believes they must go out and document the roads with GPS and do resolutions for each individual road, and there are approximately 2,200 roads. 

Brown said sage grouse is in a holding pattern. “We hope it remains that way. The Western Energy Alliance headquartered in Denver have done a lot relating to the sage grouse issues, and two or three years ago filed a lawsuit saying the numbers are there, the habitat areas are there. We continue to monitor with Western Energy; however, if we get a liberal administration, sage grouse is liable to resurface. I hope it doesn’t. There are those who say sage grouse would help to limit livestock grazing on public land.”

Of the Wild Horse Program, Brown said, “I’ve never seen a program so difficult to work with because the excess numbers remain. There isn’t really a lot of net gain in that regard, and in Lander County there’s a vast amount of competition with livestock grazing. I continue to attend board meetings for the program and give testimony. I’ve indicated there’s room on public land for the program, but it must be managed, so we must address it in that manner. There’s a $90 million annual budget for that program, and that’s a big chunk of cash.”

In other issues, Brown said they continue to monitor the 1872 Mining Law. “There’s no attempt to amend it, because as you know, there are those in society who’d like mining to be deleted on public land.”  

Brown said the Clean Water Act is another area of concern, and he is watching this and all the issues closely.

A motion was unanimously passed to approve the $2,000 annual membership fee for the Western Counties Alliance and Public Lands.