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Montezuma County, Boebert challenge proposed fee for towers on Forest Service land

The U.S. National Forest is proposing to charge a new administrative fee for use of communication towers on U.S. Forest Service land. (File photo)
11 members of Congress join county in requesting an additional 30-day comment period

A proposed new fee for use of telecommunication towers on U.S. Forest Service land is getting pushback from Montezuma County and members of Congress including U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert.

According to the proposal, the Forest Service could charge a new $1,400 annual administration fee for use of communication towers, which towns, counties and agencies rely on for emergency services.

The two towers are the Montezuma County-owned Dolores tower, off Road V. 6 north of Dolores and the Caviness tower northeast of Mancos Hill, in La Plata County, which is licensed to the Southwest Colorado Television Translator Association. The translator association maintains TV translators serving Montezuma County, western La Plata County from Hesperus south to Breen and Marvel and western Dolores County to the Utah state line.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Proposed Rule Establishing Annual Programmatic Administrative Fees for Communications Use Authorizations was published Dec. 22. The public comment period ends Feb. 22.

In a Feb. 8 letter to USFS Program Manager Joey Perry, Montezuma County requested an additional 30 days to provide comment and input on the proposed fee.

“The current comment period is too short for affected stakeholders to evaluate the impacts on emergency services authorizations fully. Montezuma County has two towers that may be affected,” the letter states.

After hearing from Montezuma County officials, Boebert, a Republican who represents the 3rd Congressional District, wrote a letter to Meryl Harrell, USDA deputy undersecretary Natural Resources and Environment, also requesting the additional 30-day comment period.

The view Monday from the Caviness tower, northeast of Mancos across the county line in La Plata County, provided by a StarDot Technologies camera.

Boebert and 10 other members of Congress have signed the letter.

“We believe that the current comment period … is much too short. Given the potential impacts to small entities, including those who provide emergency services, it is both reasonable and prudent to ensure the public has sufficient time and opportunity to provide meaningful feedback,” the letter states. “As you state in the proposed rule the use of communication services on federal lands is essential in rural areas. They already pay user fees, and now you propose to add another administrative fee on top. One that may have a more significant impact on these small entities than you estimate.”

Boebert, Montezuma County and members of Congress asked for clarification on exemptions of the new fees given existing intergovernmental agreements.

“The Forest Service’s proposal to significantly increase fees for communications towers utilized by counties appears to be a top-down, one-size-fits-all mandate drafted by some bureaucrat in Washington that doesn’t understand the West or rural communities,” Boebert stated in a news release. “County emergency managers depend on affordable access to their emergency communications towers to assist rural communities when disaster strikes, including helping fight forest fires on Forest Service land.”

In its letter to the Forest Service, the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners also expressed concern that county officials were not notified of the proposed tower fee before it was was published in the Federal Register. The Register records rules and regulations established by the U.S. executive branch of government. A rule has no legal bearing on compliance unless it has been published in the Register.

County commissioners say the proposed fee violates the Federal Lands Management Act, which states the USFS will interact with local and state governments before federal actions are proposed.

“Montezuma County has two emergency communications towers that will be affected by the new administrative fees, but we did not know about the proposed changes until after they were published in the Federal Register,” stated Montezuma County Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen in the news release. “This potentially violates the Federal Lands Management Act, which requires prior notification to local and state governments before federal actions are proposed. Additionally, this proposed change disrespects the work we have done to be good neighbors to federal lands.”

In response to emailed questions from The Journal, Forest Service Acting Assistant Director of Communications, Michael Richardson, said the agency is considering two requests made for a 30-day extension of the comment period.

In response to the county’s claim of lack of prior notice, forest service officials said there is no requirement to provide notice prior to publication of a proposed rule beyond publication in the Federal Register. While not obligated to do so, the forest service said it notified all communication users on the towers and industry groups of the proposed rule and included a link.

The county-owned Dolores Tower is dedicated to emergency services, and the county does not charge a fee for its use, Spratlen said. Users include local fire departments, law enforcement, search and rescue crews, wildfire crews, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Colorado State Patrol dispatchers.

The Caviness Tower also is used for county emergency services.

The 10 other members of Congress who signed Boebert’s letter are: Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, Matt Rosendale, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Doug LaMalfa, Diana Harshbarger, Cliff Bentz, Jody Hice, Jack Bergman, Yvette Herrell and Tom Tiffany.