CNCounty News

National Center for Public Lands Counties builds a legacy of knowledge, experience

Ravalli County, Mont. Commissioner Greg Chilcott talks to colleagues before the General Session at the 2022 NACo Annual Conference. Photo by Denny Henry

Key Takeaways

Dating back to the origins of NACo, the unique complexities of county-led public lands management and planning has been a foundational pillar of county advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C. Coinciding with the formation of the National Association of County Officials (N.A.C.O.), the predecessor organization of NACo, the Interstate Association of Public Land Counties (IAPLC) was established to address the issues and concerns of counties, particularly in the West, with large shares of federally owned public land. 

Nearly 40 years after its creation in 1978, the IAPLC merged with the N.A.C.O. Western States Region District caucus to form what is now known as NACo’s Western Interstate Region (WIR). 

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National Center for Public Lands Counties

Though western counties, on average, have a higher share of federally owned land, public lands exist across 62 percent of our nation’s counties. In total, there are 610 million acres of land in our jurisdictions. Most of this land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service under the U.S. Department of the Interior. A smaller, but still significant share, is owned by the Forest Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a comparatively marginal amount is owned by other governmental agencies including the Department of Defense and General Services Administration. 

For decades, county elected officials from public lands counties have joined forces, including through NACo WIR, to educate federal and state policymakers, key stakeholders, and the general public about the unique policy and practice landscape facing this important subset of America’s counties. Of critical importance are:

Ensuring counties are appropriately compensated through programs like the Payments In-Lieu of Taxes (PILT), Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and other resource revenue sharing programs for our role in maintaining infrastructure, delivering services and participating in public lands stewardship for our residents and visitors

Strengthening intergovernmental partnerships between federal agencies and individual counties for policy development, planning and resource management as required by federal law 

Balancing multiple use and sustained yield to preserve and protect public access to federally-owned lands to promote economic sustainability and prosperity for the county community 

With an improved understanding of the unique role of America’s county governments, Congress recently invested record sums to support public lands counties, including PILT, SRS, direct investments through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other revenue-sharing programs. Congress also granted new authorities and funding to federal land management agencies to broaden the scope, pace and scale of their “on-the-ground” resource management work with local governments. 

To continue and build upon these efforts, NACo has established the National Center for Public Lands Counties (NCPLC). Under the direction of NACo’s Executive Committee and in partnership with NACo WIR, the Public Lands Policy Steering Committee and all county officials in communities with federally owned land, the NCPLC will elevate the long-term policy and practice research, capacity and knowledge exchange, including with federal, tribal and state policymakers, key influencers, the media and the public. 

To understand these priorities, NACo is conducting a public lands county priorities survey. Survey results will be shared at the upcoming WIR conference alongside new resources, including an economic analysis of public lands counties and a knowledge hub repository of toolkits, contracts and plans related to public lands management. 

Future work through the NCPLC will also use traditional and new media—such as podcasts and video interviews—to tell the stories and develop detailed, individual research and written county profiles that demonstrate how the prosperity of public lands counties creates a more prosperous America. 

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National Center for Public Lands Counties

The National Center for Public Lands Counties is dedicated to advancing the policy and practice study of America’s public lands counties. Our mission is to deepen the understanding and address the unique challenges faced by counties containing federal lands through strategic research and collaboration.

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County News Podcast

Take a deep dive on issues impacting local governments across the country, share in lessons on leadership from county leaders and their counterparts in Washington, and learn more about what it takes to strengthen America's counties on the County News Podcast.

Top image: Ravalli County, Mont. Commissioner Greg Chilcott talks to colleagues before the General Session at the 2022 NACo Annual Conference. Photo by Denny Henry

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