National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Endangered species, public lands dominate WIR conference

By Bev Schlotterbeck

Photos by Bev Schlotterbeck
WIR’s new 2014 executive team pauses for an official portrait: (l-r) Immediate Past President John Martin, commissioner, Garfield County, Colo.; President Lesley Robinson, commissioner, Phillips County, Mont.; First Vice President Gordon Cruickshank, commission chair, Valley County, Idaho; and Second Vice President Doug Breidenthal, commissioner, Jackson County, Ore.

WIR members elected a new leadership team at their Annual Meeting and recognized Commissioner Joel Bousman, Sublette County, Wyo., with their highest honor — the Dale Sowards Award, given to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to public lands counties.

Elected to WIR’s executive team were: President Lesley Robinson, commissioner, Phillips County, Mont.; First Vice President Gordon Cruickshank, commissioner, Valley County, Idaho; Second Vice President Doug Breidenthal, Jackson County, Ore.; and Immediate Past President John Martin, Garfield County, Colo.

At its meeting, the WIR Board of Directors tackled the critical issue of sustained funding for the PILT and Secure Rural Schools programs. In a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion they examined the history, formulas, politics and a possible long-term solution to solve the funding problem for each. In the end, they formed a special working group to continue the discussion and consider priorities for WIR strategy and action.

Frustrations with the overarching reach of the federal government in public lands counties were front and center at the Western Interstate Region (WIR) Conference in Anchorage, May 21–23.The Endangered Species Act (ESA), wild horses and burros’ management, and an anemic Arctic policy, all took their turn drawing fire from conference speakers and attendees.

The ESA drew the fiercest comments during a County Solutions Roundtable discussion on the act.

Iron County, Utah Commissioner David Miller said the act threatened the “sanctity” of the Constitution. Matthew Cronin, research professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks, criticized the science behind the ESA. He maintained that some animals on the endangered list are not facing extinction and that most animals under the ESA are not species.

During his presentation, panelist Don Peay, founder of the advocacy group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, referred to environmental groups as “terrorists,” a descriptor also used by several county officials.

Peay said that working with or suing environmental groups “was wasting time playing the game in their arena with their rules.” Instead he suggested undertaking a massive grassroots campaign with a $10 million price tag. ”If you want solutions, help me build a few-million-people campaign. Have your counties donate. Get your states to donate. I think we’ll need $10 million,” he said.

The third member of the panel, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) representative, Brian McGee, Ph.D., a fish and wildlife biologist with the BLM office in Albuquerque, made an effort to explain his federal agency’s role in selecting and enforcing the ESA. His comments were respectfully received, but most discussion returned to criticizing the federal government for overstepping its bounds.

Another county solutions roundtable focused on managing wild horses and burros. While not as heated as the ESA discussion, this roundtable struck a familiar conference chord about returning federal management of local resources to the states. Rio Blanco, Colo. Commissioner John Hill was among those who urged transfer of the BLM-managed program to the states, adding that all wild horses and burros now held in BLM pens be sold without limitations, and the money from the sale used to castrate stallions.

There are roughly 50,000 horses and burros running on BLM lands. The ideal population is 26,700, according to Joan Guilfoyle, chief, Wild Horse and Burro Division at BLM, who spoke at the roundtable. The wild horse total population in the West comes in at about 150,000. 

(Left photo) Matthew Cronin,  research professor in animal genetics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, details his research in endangered species listings. (Center photo) Chris Daniel, Regroup Partners International Consulting, discusses communication styles at a workshop on leadership effectiveness. (Right photo) Commissioner Joel Bousman (l), Sublette County, Wyo., shows off his Dale Sowards Award with WIR President John Martin at the conference’s closing luncheon. The award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to public lands counties.

General session speakers also took swipes at the feds.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwelle said his state is “in a continuous battle for access and self-determination to our public lands.” Sixty-five percent of Alaska’s 586,412 square miles are in federal hands, an area larger than Texas.

Treadwell criticized the federal government for its anemic response to resource development on the Outer Continental Shelf, which abuts his state.

Changes in the climate have opened new sea routes, and countries such as Russia are taking advantage of the expanded access to the Artic land base for resource exploration, he said. “We need to be in the Artic like Kennedy’s commitment to going to the moon, like Eisenhower with the federal highway system.”

Even more worrisome to him, there’s no timetable or transparency about the nation’s broader Arctic policy. “The feds are holding us back on the Continental Shelf. We in the West need to figure out how to get out of this stalemate with the federal government,” he said.

Treadwell, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, called for a renewal of the Sagebrush Rebellion, an effort throughout the West in the 1980s to return control of federal lands to the states. “It’s time to bring federal decision-making home,” he said.

Also speaking at the same session, Cronin — expanding on his presentation at the ESA roundtable — said the federal government’s environmental regulations countermand the Fifth and 10th Amendments, and in the case of the ESA, should be repealed, declared unconstitutional by the states, or restricted in scope. Former Alaska Governor and U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski (R) also blamed an  “elite group of extreme environmentalists that have unique access to the White House” for federal restrictions on resource development. 

(Left photo) Jeff Green, El Paso County, Colo. administrator, answers a question from the audience at the health care breakfast roundtable as Commissioner Sallie Clark, NACo first vice president, waits her turn to comment. (Center photo) Alaska Lt. Gov. Meade Treadwell (l) and Mark Ward, Utah Association of Counties policy analyst, trade views after Treadwell’s speech. (Right photo) Commissioner Amber Ash, Laramie County, Wyo., questions panelists at the ESA roundtable.

While frustration with the federal government was a strong undercurrent at the conference, participants also took time to learn about a wide variety of topics to help their counties be healthier, more economically resilient and safe. Two mobile workshops looked at a local neighborhood revitalization project and a health care system created, managed and owned by the Alaska Native people.

The Nuka System of Care, an arm of the Southcentral Foundation based in Anchorage, provides broad-based health and wellness services to 64,000 Native Alaskan “customer-owners.” The program has been recognized nationally and internationally for its service excellence and cost containment.

A health care breakfast roundtable, sponsored by Aetna, drew a good crowd who heard from county and insurance industry representatives about ways they could design wellness programs for their employees that would improve the health of their workforce as well as help them manage their health care costs.

Onsite workshops offered insights about resources to develop exporting opportunities for local businesses, ways to reform public defender delivery systems, leadership effectiveness, rural economic development and public lands history.

Participants were also greeted with a dashing display of canine speed and competitive spirit as sled dogs from four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser’s team took a turn around the convention center’s main ballroom for the Opening General Session with WIR President John Martin in tow.

Buser keynoted the Opening General Session with tales about his most recent race, his dogs, overcoming brutal physical challenges and how leaders should take lessons from the nine-day race through the Alaskan wilderness. One lesson the Swiss-born champion suggested: “Some times as not, it’s better to not call for help. You signed up for the job. You ran for office. It’s your responsibility.”

Next year’s Western Interstate Region Conference will be held May 20–22 inKauai County, Hawaii.

Mobile workshop tours Native health care facility
Photo courtesy of Southcentral Foundation, Anchorage, Alaska
Tamara Pickett, M.D. leads a tour of the Southcentral Foundation’s Anchorage Native Primary Care Center. Among those on the tour are: Commissioner Ron Walter and wife Debbie (l), Chelan County, Wash. and an Alaska Municipal League staffer.

The first thing you notice is the light, the wood and the art  — an open welcoming space, miles away from the contrived informality of many medical facility lobbies. The Anchorage Native Primary Care Center reflects in wood and light and glass its Alaskan native heritage and its customer-driven commitment to health care primed by and focused on relationships.

The Southcentral Foundation’s (SCF) Nuka System of Care, which operates the primary care center, hosted a WIR mobile workshop where participants learned about the Alaskan Native-owned nonprofit health care system that serves the state’s 60,000 natives across 150,000 square miles.

SCF has undergone a dramatic reconfiguration from its time as a federal Indian Health Service health care system to its current status as a fully Native Alaskan owned and managed system. Over the past 30 years, its operating budget has grown from $3 million to $241 million. It provides a broad range of services from traditional healing clinics to behavioral health services to therapeutic homes and the more common medical services such as OB-GYN, pediatrics, radiology and emergency medicine.

Dr. Doug Eby, SCF’s vice president for medical services, walked workshop attendees through SCF’s history, mission, vision and accomplishments.

SCF is in the business of  “relationships” with “customer-owners,” not patients or clients, Eby said. The idea of relationships not only applies to the customer-owner and his or her family but also to the staff — from the receptionist to the physician  — the importance of relationships permeates any activity, he said.

This emphasis on customer-owners, physicians as partners in health, not heroes, and an individual’s responsibility for their health has resulted in some pretty impressive outcomes, Eby pointed out.

There has been a 75 percent decrease in hospital admissions since 1999; 71 percent decrease in hospital days per 1,000 since 1999; hospital admissions for childhood asthma have dropped from 10 percent to 3 percent, and a same-day access policy dropped the waiting list from 1,300 to zero in one year.

“Seventeen years ago, we completely rethought the entire health care system and got way less cost and way better clinical outcomes, better than two-thirds of the country.”