Six of the eight Republican candidates for the Park County Commission sparred at a forum in Cody last week, with their views on federal lands emerging as a topic of contention.
Each made their pitches to voters during the July 15 forum hosted by the Park County Republican Women.
Jo Walker, a Cody author and former CNA, cited threats to private property rights from state and federal agencies as part of her reason for running.
“I will do everything I can to help preserve our liberties, our conservatism in this state,” Walker said
Commissioner Joe Tilden, a South Fork ranch manager, said the current board of commissioners is functioning very well and said it was important for the county to continue pushing federal officials for more use of local public lands.
“If you’re looking for some type of hope and change, this is not the time for it,” Tilden said.
Pat Slater, a former Powell Recreation District manager, said he wanted to continue his service to the community and to help the county control its own destiny rather than “have it given to us by someone in Washington, D.C.”
“I’m looking to stand up for the residents Park County and continue the fight that commissioners are doing every day for us,” Slater said.
Donna “Dee” Guelde, a Meeteetse resident, said she wants to see money better used around the county and also wants to see investments in high-tech industry, like the manufacture of medical prosthetic devices.
“That’s where we really need to be thinking — what we’re going to be doing in the future, what our children are going to be doing in the future,” Guelde said.
Commissioner Tim French, a Heart Mountain farmer, similarly said the commission isn’t perfect, but “there’s not a lot people can criticize (about) how the commissioners operate the county.” French said he’s done his best to improve Park County.
Dave Burke, a Cody resident who served on the commission from 2009 to 2012, said he would watch residents’ money and look for ways to make things better for everyone.
“If I get re-elected, I will continue to learn, I will listen to the residents and I will ask a lot more questions,” Burke said.
Commissioner Loren Grosskopf was at a National Association of Counties Meeting in Louisiana and unable to attend the forum, but he sent a statement. Grosskopf said he opposes further restrictions and regulations on federal lands, and will continue to advocate for plans that provide greater flexibility and consider the impacts on local jobs and revenue beforehand. Grosskopf also said he “would never sacrifice any square foot of our precious resources.”
Gina Sowerwine, a para-educator and secretary at the Wapiti school, also did not make the forum, but sent a statement read at the event.
“I’ve always remained focused on family, my true inspiration, and this position as county commissioner would give me the opportunity to represent the mothers and families of Park County,” Sowerwine said in the statement.
Federal lands dominated much of the discussion, including criticism of the commission’s May vote to give $5,000 to the American Lands Council — a group that distributes information in favor of transferring many public lands to state control. The commission has not actually given the money.
Burke said he was “outraged” by the vote and described a transfer as unlikely. He faulted commissioners for not consulting the public before voting to send money to what he called an out-of-state group of lawyers.
“If it (a transfer) ever did happen — which it won’t — all (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) money and other federal subsidies would stop instantly and all of a sudden Wyoming would have to spend an unbelievable amount of money managing these lands,” Burke said. “And I’m sure Wyoming isn’t in that position to do that.”
Guelde also faulted the commission for the vote.
She said both sides of the debate over transferring the lands have merit, “and if the county commissioners wanted to make that contribution out of their own pocket, I don’t think anybody would have any problem at all, but when they choose to use public funds to take one side of the issues as they did, then it’s not fair.”
Guelde said her only concern is losing public access.
In contrast, Walker said Wyoming should do everything it can to get the land back from the federal government. She cited American Lands Council information saying land under state control has a much higher return on the money invested.
“We need to have control of our own lands,” she said.
Slater also said he supports “anything we can to fight for public access” and the American Lands Council “sounds really good.”
“My concern with the contribution is simply that whatever money is spent by the commissioners, I believe the taxpayers need to have some return on their investment, because that’s where the money comes from,” Slater said. “You need to be able to justify that expense.”
French and Tilden each said the county is now unsure as to whether the American Lands Council is the best way to advocate for the transfer of the lands, but defended the cause.
“I have no doubt that the state of Wyoming can manage those lands better than the federal government,” French said.
As for fears that the land would be sold to private enterprise after being transferred to the state, “I’d be the first one to scream bloody murder if they were going to sell a chunk of it,” French said.
In advocating the idea of a transfer, Tilden complained that federal decisions are made out of fear of litigation from the environmental community.
“It’s time that we find some way in the West to make the people back in Washington, DC, sit up and say, ‘Hey, these people out West are serious,’” Tilden said. As for federal subsidies like Payment in Lieu of Taxes going away, Tilden said the federal government now holds counties “hostage” with the uncertainty around the payments and the county wouldn’t have to worry if the state got control of the lands and minerals.
One question specifically put Burke on the spot about his views on public lands, asking if it would be a conflict of interest to be both a commissioner and a board member of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, as Burke is.
Burke said that with any topic or group, “you leave your personal opinions out in the hall when you walk into that (commission) boardroom” and recuse yourself when necessary.
Burke said he found several good reasons to join the coalition.
“One thing I’ve learned to like about Greater Yellowstone Coalition is they do advocate job creation; they advocate it at the same time that they’re advocating ... multiple use of public lands,” he said.
In contrast, French — who said his “hair would curl up” if he joined an environmental group — said he couldn’t see how being a commissioner and Greater Yellowstone Coalition member were compatible.
“All they want to do is take, take, take from what the people in Park County have,” he said, accusing the group of being “obstructionists.” He specifically cited disagreement with the group’s positions on winter use in Yellowstone National Park, wolf management and oil and gas development.
Tilden similarly said it would be a “a severe conflict of interest” for a commissioner to be a GYC board member, though he acknowledged he was a regular member for a year while on the commission.
“I thought they were trying to come back a little towards the middle and maybe over towards the right side and now they have new leadership and I believe they’re way back on the left,” Tilden said, also calling them obstructionists.
Tilden noted he is a member of other organizations, including Wyoming Outdoorsman. However, he said that group lobbies for things everyone agrees on, such as public access, maintaining habitat for wildlife and bringing more youth into hunting and fishing.
Slater said a commissioner’s priority needs to be to represent the residents of Park County. He said most environmental groups are probably trying to do the best they can to protect the environment for future generations, but he opposes those who are working to block multiple use.
Walker said she believes that “if we citizens had been better stewards of our country that there may not be quite so many environmental groups” and that there is a place for them. However, Walker said many have an agenda “that goes to controlling you, ... what you’re able to do with your land, where you’re able to go.”
Guelde said she didn’t see a conflict between being on the Greater Yellowstone Coalition board and the commission.
She said she’s a member of the Sierra Club, but has had a falling out with the group over its advocacy for wolves.
“They’re top predators,” Guelde said of the animals. “They don’t belong anywhere where people are.”
Guelde said she supports preservation, but doesn’t like the aggressive way some environmental groups handle issues.
The field of Republican contenders for the Park County Commission has narrowed to eight candidates.
Cody resident Paul Lanchbury announced Monday that he was withdrawing from the race.
Lanchbury cited personal reasons for the decision.
His withdrawal leaves incumbent commissioners Tim French, Loren Grosskopf and Joe Tilden and challengers Dave Burke of rural Cody, Donna “Dee” Guelde of Meeteetse, Pat Slater of rural Powell, Gina Sowerwine of Wapiti and Jo Walker of Cody in the running for three available seats on the five-member board.