Criticism promoted by closed forest meeting

Agency, commissioners violated law, conservations contend

From the Spokesman-Review.

James Hagengruber, Staff writer

A group of Idaho conservationists is accusing the U.S. Forest Service and two Shoshone County commissioners of violating the state’s open meeting law during a session in Coeur d’Alene on Monday focused on proposed changes to the management of Idaho’s roadless forests.

Mike Richardson, a board member of the Idaho Conservation League, said he wanted to sit in on the meeting between Idaho Panhandle National Forests Supervisor Ranotta McNair and Shoshone County commissioners Jon Cantamessa and Sherry Krulitz.

“I don’t understand this. I just went there to observe, not to impose,” said Richardson, of Naples, Idaho. “It makes you suspicious. This is something that should be totally open.”

Forest Service spokesman Dave O’Brien said the state’s open meeting law did not apply because no decisions were made and the two commissioners were acting in their role as representatives of the Idaho Association of Counties. Public meetings will be held in coming months.

“We are going to have tons of public meetings,” O’Brien said. “It’s going to be a very open process. People are going to know exactly what’s going on. Any claims to the contrary are just seeking headlines.”

In May, President Bush took steps toward reversing a sweeping ban on road-building and development in millions of acres of backcountry, including 800,000 acres in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The change gives states more control over the management of national forests.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne strongly supported the change and asked for local communities to develop recommendations on which areas should be kept off-limits to development. Commissioners Krulitz and Cantamessa are spearheading the information-gathering effort for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, which includes land in six North Idaho counties. Neither commissioner returned a call for comment Tuesday.

The meeting Monday morning in Coeur d’Alene was simply “process oriented,” and a “mutual scoping session,” O’Brien said. It was Forest Service officials, not the commissioners, who decided to keep the session closed, he said. “They weren’t consulted on this. We made the call.”

The dispute coincided with a public forum Tuesday in Coeur d’Alene on Idaho’s open meeting law. Representatives from the Forest Service as well as the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, which was also denied entrance to the meeting, attended the forum and asked for clarification from Idaho Deputy Attorney General William von Tagen.

Even if decisions are not made, the state’s open meeting law would kick in when a state agency or a quorum of county commissioners meets to receive or exchange information that would eventually be used to make a decision, von Tagen said. It’s up to the Idaho public officials to ensure they comply with the law, even if they are meeting in a federal office building.

“It’s not an excuse to say the federal government wouldn’t let us in,” von Tagen said, adding that his advice to public officials is usually, “When in doubt, open the meeting.”

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden declined to discuss the matter in detail, other than to confirm he was aware of the dispute. “We have the potential of being the prosecuting entity,” Wasden said.

Kootenai Environmental Alliance executive director Barry Rosenberg said his group is considering filing a complaint on the matter. Alliance member Mike Mihelich was barred entry to the meeting.

Linda Richardson, spouse of the Idaho Conservation League board member, was also kept out of the meeting. She spent part of Tuesday studying open meeting laws.

“I don’t have much understanding of these things,” she said. “But if they have a right to make decisions, the public has the right to be there. … I’m a citizen and I just happen to really like the wilderness and the woods. Its management shouldn’t be decided in backroom meetings.”

From the Spokesman-Review.

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