Coordination: The Great Panacea?

Posted by kelli.little on April 23, 2015

By: Gregory Cowan, Natural Resource Staff Attorney

Every now and again a group of smooth talking salesmen show up in an attempt to capitalize on the very real  frustrations many of us Westerners experience when confronting issues related to public lands management.  A near constant “hear ye, hear ye!” from this lot is that counties have the ability and outright authority to “invoke” coordination, often billing its invocation as the ultimate and final arbiter of all things found within the core of federalism.  Of course, we know this is not a wholly accurate depiction of what coordination is (otherwise, all of our frustrations would have been resolved long ago).  So if it’s not the Great Panacea of all our public lands woes, what exactly is “coordination?”

Coordination, when provided for by federal statute, requires federal agencies to “coordinate” with local and state governmental entities where practical.  These statutes often require an explanation by the federal agency if its final plan/decision fails to incorporate (i.e., remains inconsistent with) local and state plans.  These statutes, and resulting agency regulations, prescribes to the agency a duty to reach out and coordinate with local and state governmental entities.  Coordination is simply another term for dialogue.  Think of it as “cooperative federalism-lite” that says, “Hey, federal agency, you’d be wise to reach out to your local governmental bedfellows and a) let them know what you’re planning to do and b) avoid conflicts wherever possible.”

What coordination is not: establishment of legal status (contrast with cooperating agency), a requirement for negotiation, guarantee of access to all levels and stages of planning, derogation of rights by the federal agency (i.e., equal footing).  Finally, coordination is not effectuated by embracing mere policy statements—you have to bring substance that is defensible and germane to the federal agency’s mission and planning process before it.

What coordination is (we often have to remind our federal friends of this): a duty and expectation of some federal agencies to reach out to local and state governmental entities and establish and maintain dialogue essential to the successful advancement of the federal agency’s mission.  This relationship is meant to be ongoing and not defined by a specific project.

Coordination minimizes surprises.  By reaching out and becoming aware of local and state management priorities on non-federal lands adjoining or otherwise affected by federal land management practices, the federal agencies can develop responsive management prescriptions that reflect many of the ideals and concerns of the local planning area.  This awareness should—in an ideal world—avert surprises. 

Coordination provides an avenue for states and local governments to provide substantive input directly to the BLM.  A logical outgrowth of that input is influence in the federal decision-making process.  If an agency completely fails in its duty to reach out to state and local governments as prescribed by law, that is when a legal case is on the table.  However, be wary of those who say that coordination requires complete agreement every single time.