Bitterroot Valley summer

I want to commend the Ravalli County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) for proposing establishment of a broad based, collaborative committee to provide substantive input on public land issues.

A collaborative group that works together and truly represents all interests in the county would go a long way toward: (1) building positive working relationships and trust among members, groups and organizations that frequently disagree; (2) crafting resource management options that strive to minimize conflict among users, and (3) capitalizing on opportunities to optimize social, economic and environmental benefits from our public lands.

It might even help reduce some of the polarized and win-lose attitudes that exist in the Bitterroot.

I was apprehensive when I first heard of this idea at a BOCC meeting on Thursday, Dec. 8.

Most successful collaborative efforts start as grassroots efforts by everyday citizens committed to resolving some pressing and commonly shared problem.

This group would be different in that it would be authorized, appointed and sanctioned by local government. This could be a problem if the committee’s purpose was solely to “add weight to Commissioners’ comments” to public land managers.

However, I was reassured at the meeting to hear that the BOCC does not plan to micromanage the group and that it has “no preconceived notions on how the committee will operate.”

Giving the group independence and viewing them as agents of the public, not an arm of local government, should give the committee credibility and reduce skepticism by potential critics. It should also help take full advantage of the group’s collective knowledge and lead to more reasonable and acceptable recommendations to public land managers.

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Ultimately, success or failure will depend on the group’s composition, commitment, and willingness to work together and on how the BOCC uses their recommendations. Hopefully those selected to serve will be open minded, respectful, and constructive individuals who are motivated to produce results, work toward the collective good and resist promoting personal agendas.

Ideally, group recommendations would favor land management activities consistent with resource sustainability and be focused on the long-term public good over short-term economics. To be successful, the group will necessarily have to find common ground, gain a better appreciation for a diversity of perspectives and network with like minded individuals in the valley.

Thus, members of this collaborative committee have a significant opportunity to not only influence the benefits realized from public lands, but to also reduce the polarization so detrimental to civil society in Ravalli County. They also have the potential to show that social, economic and environmental benefits can be attained for not only local residents, but also for citizens of the state and the nation.

If we hope to reduce the tensions over public land management and the likelihood of litigation slowing decisions, we must figure out a way to work together to benefit everyone in the county and where no one feels left out of the decision making process. This proposal is a start in doing just that.

I want to thank the commissioners for being willing to take this uncertain step toward consensus building. Regardless of our personal interests and expectations, we should all try to give this collaborative effort a chance. With a clear mission and people with the right attitude, it can be a major step forward for public land management in Ravalli County.

– Skip Kowalski, President

Bitterrooters for Planning Stevensville