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Lincoln County Commissioner candidates discuss issues related to local natural resources

by Jeremie Vella Western News
| May 30, 2008 12:00 AM

Lincoln County’s natural resources were the focus of a debate among the six Republican candidates for commissioner held Tuesday night at Elks Lodge. Don Cox, Dennis Souther, Lee Disney, Mike Munro, Jerry Okonski and Mayor Anthony Berget argued for a greater independence from federal and state governments that limit public access to local forests.

The forum was sponsored and moderated by Montanans for Multiple Use, an environmental not-for-profit organization. Questions were also fielded from the audience of about 25.

Each suggested different approaches to regaining this independence, but all agreed that a healthy Lincoln County economy depended on better use of the minerals and timber located in the area.

Libby mayor Tony Berget argued for co-ordination with other Northwestern counties to make a bigger impact in Helena and Washington, D.C.

“It’s naive to think we’ll be able to do anything as a county, but with other counties we can get stuff done,” he said.

The debate then shifted to the relationship between the economy and natural resource policy. Munro emphasized that a restoration of local control over forest management was not enough to save the economy.

“We need to invest in other industries as well as timber and mineral,” Munro said.

“No one wants to raise taxes and cut services, so we’re going to have to work real hard to solve it. The commissioner should go to the people, ask them what they need and not what they want,” answered Disney.

When asked for specific tools that a county commissioner may use to give power to govern forests locally, each candidate listed R.S. 9477, a statute that provides public rights of way to trails and waterways that existed before the National Forest took over in the 1930’s.

“I understand that the county has been using that tool effectively already and I would continue to do so,” said Berget. But he added that new restrictions because of the grizzly bear habitat and endangered species complicated the issue.

Cox raised the possibility of changing the Equal Access to Justice Act, which provides for the award of attorney fees and other expenses to eligible individuals and small entities that are parties to litigation against the government.

Litigation is one of the most common and effective means to prevent mining facilities and additional timber harvesting in the area.

“We need to change this so that losers should pay. It’s too much of an incentive to sue if they also don’t have to pay for it,” said Cox.

Okonski, who has a natural resource policy background, quickly agreed.

(According to United States Small Business Administration, however, the government will pay for a party “when it prevails over the government, unless the government’s position was ‘substantially justified’ or special circumstances make an award unjust.”)

The debate concluded with a spirited discussion of the need for local government to be open and transparent to the people. Some suggested nightly commissioner’s meetings for those who cannot attend during the day and all encouraged more citizens in the county to participate in debates and show up to public meetings.

The primary will be held June 3. It is likely that whoever wins the Republican primary will be the county commissioner since no Democrat filed by deadline.