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Representatives from Senators Crapo and Risch and Congressman Simpson met with the Lemhi County Commissioners Monday, May 11, to answer any questions and address any local issues the commissioners wished to discuss.

The first question posed had to do with the Environmental Protection Act and Army Corps of Engineers proposed Waters of the US rule and the possibility of its being considered again. The proposed rule changed the Clean Water Act by removing the word “navigable” which opponents said, coupled with ambiguity of definitions, would grant the federal government entirely too much jurisdiction over all water including underground sources and puddles after a rain storm. Amy Taylor of Senator Risch’s office said both the House and Senate have passed pieces of legislation to stop the rule.

Ethan Huffman, Congressman Simpson’s aide, said Congressman Simpson chairs the House Energy and Water Appropriation Subcommittee and in the Energy and Water appropriations bill that passed the House floor two weeks ago there was language aimed at preventing the EPA from trying to enforce the rule again. As of May 13 the House passed bill, H.R. 1732, was being considered by the Senate. If passed by the Senate the bill will move on to a conference committee.

Huffman said President Obama is threatening to veto the entire House passed Energy and Water Appropriation Bill if some energy related changes are not made. He said the bill redirects a lot of renewable energy monies to fossil and nuclear energy. Huffman said the presidential threat puts all the rules and legislation up for conference committee debate. In Huffman’s opinion since the opposition to the navigable waters portion of the legislation came from Energy and Water Appropriation Subcommittee Chairman Simpson and the fact that Republicans control the House and Senate, there’s a good chance the bill preventing the EPA rule will survive.

Another issue of major interest to this county is establishment of forest fire funding. There is an effort in progress to move fire funding from the forest’s management budgets because years of major forest fires have depleted the agency’s funds for forest health. Taylor said US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell supports the forest stewardship programs which deal with resource management aimed at forest health and fire prevention and he thinks more of those programs are needed.

Moving firefighting monies out of forest management and into another federal budget, such as disaster funding, would protect the stewardship/forest management programs however there is some opposition from those in congress who don’t want to issue a blank check for forest fires. The discussion is taking place but according to Taylor, Senator Risch believes its taking too long.

Taylor said it sounds as if there is agreement within the Forest Service that more management is needed. She said the local stewardship agreements seem to be moving forward however according to Commissioner John Jakovac one obstacle is the required 20 percent match. He said if the revenue match requires 20 percent, the area needs to be enlarged to increase the access necessary to obtain that amount of revenue. He said the percentage needs to be more realistic in relation to the job opportunity.

Taylor said most of the stewardship agreements are based on wanting to benefit the community and on being able to sell the harvested product. Commissioner Chairman Rick Snyder commented that in this area the viability of marketable timber from a “timber sale” is questionable due to the amount of beetle killed trees. Jakovac said the 45,000 acre North Fork Timber Sale only contains about 5,000 acres of saleable timber which is less than 10 percent. Taylor suggested talking with the Forest Service to see if that match is a required percentage or if there is some leeway since the North Fork project is more about forest management than it is about timber sales.

It was agreed that the stewardship agreements are meant to benefit the community by way of hiring workers but in some cases it is more economical for the Forest Service to simply contract the work. Crapo Aide Kathryn Hitch and Taylor said they would be gathering more information on the percentage of match situation.

Another forest related issue discussed was the low percentage of permits of all kinds being issued. Taylor said there is a back log of permits nationwide and that there has been talk of streamlining the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. She will check on what progress has been made.

The commissioners also wondered if the congressional people had a couple million dollars to spare for bridges. The question drew laughter. More seriously, Jakovac said it would have been nice to have some federal funds for the 190 foot Rattlesnake Bridge since it accesses around 40,000 acres of federal lands and a few hundred mining claims.

Snyder explained the county went through the search for federal grants and there was nothing that didn’t take many years to acquire. He said people have asked why the county is bothering to build a bridge for so few homes and so little traffic. His answer was the county wants to encourage access to federal and state lands and feels obligated to do so, to give everyone business and recreational opportunities in that area.

Snyder said bridge problems are pervasive throughout the country as all the bridges from President Eisenhower’s 1950’s bridge-building era have reached the same advanced age, with the exception of the Rattlesnake Bridge. It was already 50 years old when it was installed over 50 years ago. Huffman said the D.C. office checked into federal bridge funding and found those programs no longer exist.

The good news of the day was the Secure Rural Schools Act has been reinstated for another two years. The SRS is very important for this county because the funding is based on the amount of tax dollars lost with the demise of timber harvest and sales on federal lands. Around 93 percent of the land in Lemhi County is federally owned which is therefore non-taxable. Revenues from timber sales on those lands used to supply a major portion of the overall county budget and made up for the lack of tax base. Those tax base revenues disappeared but the need for services on all lands in the county did not go away. The SRS funding goes to supplement the Road and Bridge Department and local schools.

The congressional aides and commissioners all engaged in a general discussion of federal policies and the oversight resources that can be obtained when dealing with ethical matters.

The Idaho Falls contingency of congressional aides is scheduled to revisit the area in June for a meeting focused on Veteran\'s issues. Hitch, Huffman and Taylor encouraged the commissioners to call their office with any questions or concerns.

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