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KNRC set to ask for more money

5/30/2014

Coalition continues opposition to listing of lesser prairie chicken

Coalition continues opposition to listing of lesser prairie chicken

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

GARDEN CITY -- After spending nearly three hours talking about the encroaching role of the federal government, the president of a loosely knit grassroots association eventually turned to the bottom line.

To continue fighting the government, Sherman County Commissioner Ken Klemm said at a policy committee meeting last week in Garden City, the Kansas Natural Resources Coalition needs money.

For some of the smaller counties participating, the amount being sought will be significant, and it might be enough to prompt some counties to drop out of the coalition, operating now for almost a year without a set of governing bylaws.

"We do not have bylaws yet," said Klemm, who also serves as president of the KNRC. "We came to this meeting to get direction from you."

Most of the issues raised at the meeting focused on the increasing role the federal government has in local matters.

"In a way, government is the enemy," KNRC steering committee member Nikki Schwerdfeger, a Hamilton County commissioner. "But our war isn't just with the government. What happens is they get sued by a group with perhaps too much time on their hands."

"It's not against the government," Klemm said of the fight. "It's against the trend of tyranny."

Klemm said the coalition will be asking for $4,665 from participating counties, now numbering 31, to cover costs for the rest of this year. They'll ask for another $5,500 for next year. Not all of the member counties were represented at the meeting.

Those costs include administrative expenses, coordination activities involving the Bureau of Land Management and seed money to explore the possibility of suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its listing of the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

All told, KNRC will be asking counties to cough up $144,380 for the remainder of this year and another $170,740 in 2015.

While individual counties will be asked to pay nearly $5,000 this year and almost $6,000 next year, those costs could go up or down depending on how many counties continue to participate or if other contributors step forward.

Currently, there are 31 counties participating in the group, but Klemm and others at the meeting said they expect that number to drop because of the added cost.

KNRC plans to ask other counties in western Kansas to join them, although new counties will be asked to pay the 2013 allocation as well.

Klemm also plans to approach utility companies, which shouldered a big share of last year's cost, to see if they're still willing to partner with them.

While much of the money will be used for administrative expenses, paying salaries for the group's executive director Jim Carlson and research-analyst Sheila Ellis, they also talked about the need to occasionally hire a lawyer and pay travel expenses for members of the steering committee.

A larger share of the money would be dedicated to "coordination" activities involving the Bureau of Land Management, which is updating its resource management plan for Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Carlson sought to show BLM is changing its approach on the plan to focus on an "ecosystem" similar to the area occupied by the lesser prairie-chicken.

KNRC, on the advice of an Idaho-based former conservative property rights attorney, has pushed to try so-called coordination efforts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Despite appeals from the Kansas group, FWS turned aside the approach and went ahead and listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

That listing is the driving force behind a request for $23,000 in "seed money," to explore the possibility of suing FWS over its listing of the bird.

"This is enough money to go out and see if there are enough people to fund it," Klemm said in explaining how the money will be used.

Carlson said the group plans to file a lawsuit against FWS on its decision to list the bird.

"We can also hold them accountable for refusing to coordinate," he said.

It's unlikely counties will be paying for the full cost of the lawsuit, which ultimately could cost $400,000 or more.

Instead, that's something that might fall to other groups, such as the state of Kansas, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation or oil and gas interests.

Kansas already has joined with Oklahoma and other oil interests in a lawsuit taking aim at the court settlement between FWS and several environmental groups. FWS agreed to move ahead with evaluating hundreds of species to see if they meet the criteria to go on the endangered species list.

While legislators at the meeting -- Sens. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, and Larry Powell, R-Garden City, and Reps. John Ewy, R-Jetmore and Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater -- weren't willing to commit anything on behalf of the state, they didn't discourage the idea of talking to state leaders.

"I think we need to talk to the governor and attorney general," Powell said.

"I don't think it would be that hard to get him (Gov. Sam Brownback) and the attorney general to meet with this group," Hoffman said.

Hoffman also said money from the state oil and gas depletion trust fund will become available in July and could be used.

"We are left in the terrible position of whether we can afford justice or not," one of the commissioners said of being able to move forward in the lawsuit.

But time could be running out.

"We need to file a notice of intent," Carlson said, "within 60 tor 90 days" of the May 12 effective date of the listing.

But, he said, "that is a decision this group needs to make."

While no vote was taken, commissioners were generally supportive of moving ahead.

"We can't stop now," one said.

"Why do we want to fight the little things when the big things are killing us," he said, suggesting counties might want to look at dumping economic development efforts in favor of the KNRC.

But Mahlon Tuttle, a Gove County commissioner and vice president of KNRC, said Graham County isn't interested in in providing more money.

Klemm said the group would prepare invoices and send them to the commissioners attending.

"If we just send invoices out, we'll be in trouble," he said. "We need them hand delivered."