Commission withdraws monument support
In its first meeting of the new year, the Pocahontas County Commission undid one of its more controversial actions of 2012, withdrawing its support for the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument proposed by the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition and its supporters.
Proponents of the national monument say they intend to press on with their proposal to designate an area of the Monongahela National Forest centered around the 48,000-acre Cranberry Wilderness.
More than 70 people came to the courthouse for the discussion, prompting the commission to move from its small meeting room on the first floor of the building, upstairs to the courtroom. While the agenda allotted one hour for discussion, commissioners spent more than two hours listening to the monument’s supporters and critics.
As frequently as people spoke for or against the monument proposal, others were critical of the commission giving its support to the proposal without having a full understanding of the impacts on forest management, hunting regulations, visitor restrictions and other aspects of the area’s management.
That lack of understanding by the commission was made evident when, after passing a resolution in support of the national monument proposal in June, commissioners then sent a letter six months later to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with a list of questions and conditions concerning the commission’s support of monument designation.
In June, commissioner David Fleming and former commissioner Martin Saffer voted to approve the resolution in support of the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument proposal. Commissioner Jamie Walker voted against the resolution, saying he felt he didn’t have enough information to be in support of the proposal and voicing concern over the proposal’s potential impact on hunting regulations.
The proposal being advanced by the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition and its supporters doesn’t yet specify boundaries for the national monument. Wilderness Coalition spokesperson Mike Costello says that is because the specific boundaries will be determined through public meetings with interested parties over the coming months.
Areas of interest to monument supporters include the Cranberry Wilderness, Cranberry Glades, Falls of Hills Creek, Highland Scenic Highway, Tea Creek Backcountry, Turkey Mountain Backcountry, the site of the historic Mill Point Federal Prison and headwaters streams of the Cranberry, Cherry, Williams, Gauley, Elk and Greenbrier river watersheds.
In an e-mail sent following Thursday’s meeting, Costello said the current area under consideration comprises about 75,000 acres of lands around the Cranberry Wilderness.
“As part of the collaborative process, the final proposed boundaries are subject to further discussion and negotiation,” Costello said. “Exact proposed boundaries will be drawn following a series of public meetings to determine how best to preserve the area while addressing as many access and management concerns as possible.”
A few weeks after the commission passed its resolution of support, outdoorsmen, accompanied by Wild Turkey Federation wildlife biologist Cully McCurdy, of Beaver Creek, asked the commission to withdraw its support, voicing concern that national monument designation would open the door to hunting restrictions and limit wildlife management activities in the area. Others said they feared the land would eventually be transferred from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Parks Service.
McCurdy questioned whether the county would continue to receive the same share of revenues from the forest if the acreage in question was no longer actively managed.
Fleming and Saffer said they would not reverse the commission’s decision.
In December, the issue was before the commission once again, when commissioners voted to send a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack concerning the proposed national monument.
The letter stated that while the commission had observed strong support for the proposal by outdoors groups, business owners and conservationists, it still had concerns about what a national monument might mean for access and hunting.
“[O]ur communities and citizens would only support a National Monument in the Monongahela National Forest that continues to allow hunting and fishing, trout stocking, and spruce restoration, with wildlife and fisheries management activities remaining under the direction of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources,” the commission’s letter stated.
The land encompassed by the monument itself should remain under the administration of the USDA and Forest Service, rather than the National Park Service, the commission added.
The commission also requested that a USDA representative conduct or attend a public meeting in Pocahontas County to gather public input and address concerns about potential access fees, hunting regulations and access limits with respect to the proposed national monument.
Critics of the proposal said Thursday that commissioners should have demanded answers to those questions before throwing its support behind the proposal.
In many ways, Thursday’s meeting in the courtroom resembled a sort of trial. To maintain order over the large crowd, commissioners sat at the judge’s bench. Costello was called forward to speak to the merits of the national monument proposal. McCurdy then reviewed a bullet list of the proposal’s shortcomings.
Dozens of county residents were permitted time to voice their support or opposition to the proposal.
Again, the familiar lines in the debate were drawn. Those in favor of the national monument proposal said they felt the area warranted the special designation. Such a designation, the argued, would give the county a large area on the map to promote to a growing tourism market—similar to the Canaan Valley on the northern end of the MNF.
The opposition warned of increased regulation and restrictions on hunting and timbering activities, threats to county revenues from the forest and diminished local input in the management of the area’s resources.
McCurdy said the area—and the whole MNF for that matter—already had a “collaborative” process in place for determining how it should be managed. The Forest Management Plan, which is revised every 10-to-15 years by the U.S. Forest Service for each national forest, allows ample opportunity for public input on forest management. The most recent management planning process for the MNF brought in more than 15,000 public comments, McCurdy noted.
In an e-mail sent following the meeting, Costello said impacts to county forest revenues were overstated by the opposition. Payment in Lieu of Taxes from the Federal government to the county would remain the same no matter how the land in question is managed or which federal agency owns it.
How much counties actually receive depends on Congressional appropriations from year to year. Congress usually does not approve the full amount counties are eligible to receive through PILT.
The federal PILT Act was established to compensate local governments for lost revenue from property taxes on federally owned lands. Those payments are made to local governments when the land in question is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which are all bureaus of the Interior Department), the U.S. Forest Service (an agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and for Federal water projects and some military installations.
The other federal payment the county receives, under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, is a little more complicated. Before 2000, counties received compensation based on 25 percent of receipts from timber sales and mineral lease royalty payments from federal lands in their borders. With timber sales in decline, the Secure Rural Schools Act was passed in 2000, allowing counties to choose to receive their traditional 25 percent share of the past year’s timber sales or to base their share on 25 percent of the average of the three best years of timber receipts from 1986 to 1999.
The Secure Rural Schools Act originally expired in 2006. It was renewed by Congress for one year in 2007, for four more years in 2008 and one more year in 2012. Each time Congress has renewed the act, it has reduced the spending level.
If the act is allowed to expire, county payments would go back to the previous formula based on 25 percent of the most recent year’s receipts.
Fleming said in his conversations with U.S. Representative Nick Rahall, the congressman indicated that Secure Rural Schools funding would likely not be renewed for more than one year at a time in the foreseeable future, given the current tone of budget discussions in Washington. Federal PILT funding also remains on the congressional bargaining table, said Fleming.
In the end, it was Fleming who made the motion to rescind the commission’s June resolution in support of the national monument designation. The motion included redrafting the December letter, with its questions, to reflect the commission’s new stance.
“I don’t want to see this commission shut the door on this conversation,” said Fleming. “I do think the resolution needs revisited. I do hope for a response to the letter we’ve sent, asking questions that you are asking. I think it’s our job to facilitate your questions to those who can answer them. I think it’s our job to promote economic development.”
“There is the potential for economic development here,” Fleming added. “I think there is the potential to increase the population of Pocahontas County with this activity.”
Walker said the big issue for him remained whether or not the current level of hunting and fishing in the area would be allowed if it were designated as a national monument.
“Yeah, there are a few of these monuments that I’ve looked up that allow it, but there is very few of them that allow it freely, like it is now,” said Walker. “They either charge you for it, they limit where you can hunt, they limit how long you can hunt, or they limit you to how much game or fish you can take from that area.”
“Every monument that I’ve looked at has restrictions,” Walker said.
Irvine, the self-described “new kid on the block” among his fellow commissioners, recalled a similarly major change to the management of the area in question.
Irvine said when he first became county assessor some 30 years ago, the county received $2 million in exchange for timber revenues lost from the establishment of the Cranberry Wilderness on the MNF.
“That 35,000 acres would support a sawmill of 50 people,” said Irvine. “Now, if we’re looking at 75,000 or 100,000 more acres, you’re looking at timber that would support a sawmill that would employ 100 people. I don’t know whether the tourism business means more than that or not—I haven’t had a chance to do the research. I’m not sure whether those figures are still accurate today.”
Irvine said Pocahontas County schools were “better than most” on account of that $2 million payment.
“There is a lot of revenue to be considered whenever we consider this national monument,” Irvine added. “It affects the services we provide; it affects the courthouse operations. Those are some major things, in my opinion, that should have been considered before we ever thought about the national monument. I can’t believe that we adopted a resolution, without having any more information than we did. I still don’t have enough information today, in my opinion. But I intend on working and trying to get enough from people who know more than I do.”
Irvine said he was interested in speaking with local officials in the handful of areas where the U.S. Forest Service manages national monuments as he weighs the pros and cons of the designation.
Fleming’s motion to rescind the resolution of support passed 3-0.
During the remainder of Thursday’s regular meeting, the commission also addressed the following agenda items.
In its annual reorganization, the commission elected Irvine as its president in a 2-1 vote. Fleming, who served as the commission’s president for the last two years, cast the dissenting vote, noting Irvine is just beginning his term as a commissioner.
The commission received updates from several county organizations during Thursday’s meeting.
Pocahontas County Preservation Officer B.J. Gudmundsson updated the commission on preservation of historical documents, photographs and other resources.
While Gudmundsson has been able to secure funding for special projects, operating support continues to be ellusive. Most recently, the county preservation efforts were funded by a line item in the county budget. Prior to that, the project received a portion of the county library system’s Hotel/Motel Tax funds.
The preservation project is in the process of filing for non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service and has been recognized as a non-profit association by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, said Gudmundsson.
Gudmundsson asked for a spot on the commission’s next meeting agenda to discuss future funding of the Pocahontas County Preservation Project.
Driving home the impact of the preservation project’s work, Gudmundsson showed commissioners newly discovered records detailing the construction of the historic Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, including architectural drawings, a bid for construction and the bill of sale for the bell. Other items included documentation of the original land grant to Huntersville settler John Bradshaw and an 1851 county tax receipt.
Many of the historical photos and documents collected by the project may be viewed online at pocahontaspreservation.org.
Pocahontas County Historic Landmarks Commission Treasurer Dennis Driscoll gave the commission his board’s annual update. Over the past year, the commission completed electrical upgrades at the Pocahontas County Opera House and has made significant progress on the restoration of the McLaughlin cabin, the oldest existing structure in Marlinton, said Driscoll.
Driscoll said the commission is still seeking a tenant for the cabin, which sits along the Greenbrier River Trail, behind the newly restored railroad depot.
With the commission’s current level of funding from its share of Hotel/Motel Tax funds, Driscoll said the landmarks commission will be able to make the building habitable.
The commission deferred a decision to fund a 12-bed, in-patient recovery house for Pocahontas County women working to overcome substance abuse. The request came before the commission from Davina Agee, who is spearheading the effort.
Agee said the facility will not be prescribing medications to wean addicts from drugs. Instead, the focus of the facility will be to help the admitted women regain day-to-day life skills, and ensuring they participate in group therapy programs.
Clients would be referred to the program by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Agee said she is in contact with the Governor’s recently established drug task force to discuss funding.
While there may be some state funding for the facility, Agee said it was important to her to be able to tell people that the county supported the program. She said she would leave the amount of support up to the commission’s discretion.
Fleming and Irvine advised Agee to come before the commission during one of it’s quarterly meetings for disbursing discretionary funds, once the program has received non-profit status from the IRS.
The commission also received an update from Pocahontas County Artisans Cooperative Treasurer Brenda Harman. The non-profit group of 30-plus members operates cooperatively managed art galleries in Marlinton and Slaty Fork. As the organization continues to expand in membership and arts-related activities, Harman said it plans to expand operations at its 4th Avenue Gallery in Marlinton. That expansion will require about $100,000 in renovations to the building where it is currently housed.
In order to help fund that expansion, Harman requested a portion of the county’s Hotel/Motel Tax allocations.
Harman said the cooperative is also seeking grant support from Snowshoe Foundation and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. The expansion would allow for office space, studio space, storage of artwork for inventory and flood protection, additional gallery space and the potential for a framing business.
The commission will make its decision on funding for the organization at its January 15 meeting, when it makes its annual review of the Hotel/Motel Tax distribution.
The commission tabled making its assignments to the various county boards. Irvine said he felt the president could simply make the commissioner assignments without motions from the other commissioners. Commission Clerk Sue Helton noted that in her 14 years of working with the commission, each assignment was made by a vote of the full commission. The Helton and the commission will consult West Virginia state code ahead of its January 15 meeting.
In order to better accommodate the county’s working citizens, the commission voted to move the start-time of its evening meetings on the third Tuesday of each month from 5 p.m. to 5:30.
Commissioners voted 3-0 to accept the lone bid from Woodford Oil to fuel the county’s fleet of vehicles. The bid price is current rack price plus $0.15. Fuel delivered at the time the bid was written was priced at $2.7872 per gallon.
The commission set meeting dates of the Board of Equalization and Review, which settles property tax disputes, as follows: Friday, February 1; Tuesday, February 5 (at the start of the regular commission meeting); and Friday, February 8. Each meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m. on the date specified.
Commissioners approved a request from Shentel to broadcast Pocahontas County Commission Meetings to Marlinton cable customers on Shentel’s Simply Local community access channel.
The commission also approved the release of loss data and payroll audits from Brickstreet Insurance to the West Virginia County Risk Pool, which currently insures county government.
The commission tabled the appointment of someone to fill the unexpired term of Mark Clark on the board of Pocahontas County Free Libraries. Helton noted that the commission had not yet received any letters of interest in the board position.
The Pocahontas County Commission’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 15, at the courthouse in Marlinton.
Drew Tanner may be contacted at datanner@pocahon tastimes.com