MOUNT VERNON — During the past 17 years, Skagit County has paid a Virginia lobbyist $261,000 to represent the county in Washington, D.C.
The county is set to pay another $20,000 to Robert K. Weidner in 2018, according to its draft budget.
The Skagit County commissioners say they hired Weidner to give them a voice in federal decisions that determine whether Skagit County receives revenue from federal timber lands or gets grants for local projects.
However, some county residents have raised concerns about Weidner’s values and motives, as well as the commissioners’ reasons for hiring him.
Jerry Eisner of Mount Vernon said he and others in the community became concerned earlier this year while looking into the county’s involvement with the organization American Stewards of Liberty, a group known for its anti-environmental and anti-federal control initiatives.
The county contracted with that group as it sought to have more input on an Environmental Impact Statement regarding the federal plan to restore of grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
While seeking information about the county’s contract with American Stewards of Liberty, Eisner and others learned of the county’s longstanding relationship with Weidner.
The county contracts with Weidner as a member of the Evergreen Forest County Group, which includes several Washington counties that have federal forest lands.
Weidner’s list of priorities for 2017, as spelled out in an email to Skagit and several other Washington counties, suggests that while securing money is part of his mission, his initiatives align with the goals of the American Stewards of Liberty.
“(Weidner’s) vision for the future of this county is one that’s shared by only a few fringe members of the Republican Party. Why have we joined this group?” Martha Hall of Anacortes asked the Skagit County commissioners during a commissioners meeting Nov. 21. “I find this alarming.”
Hall was one of 13 from throughout the county who voiced concerns at that meeting.
Several others spoke to the issue during a commissioners’ meeting Tuesday. Of the speakers, several are part of an informal group that has come together to oppose the county’s relationship with Weidner.
Weidner told the Skagit Valley Herald that the group’s assessment of him is wrong.
“They don’t know me. I have a very strong environmental record,” he said. “I was just really surprised because it was clear as I watched those people testify (on video) that they all had the same set of notes, and they don’t know me.”
An issue of power
Eisner said the group’s greatest concern about the county’s contract with Weidner is his apparent support of county supremacy — the idea that the federal government should have to answer to counties — under the guise of seeking “coordination.”
The social justice think tank Political Research Associates says that while the term “coordination” is written into some federal land management laws in order to promote consistency among layers of government, extreme groups have used it to promote county supremacy.
“The term coordination is lipstick on a pig ... The ultimate goal is to take federal lands from the public and turn them over to private interests,” Mary Ruth Holder of Mount Vernon said at one of the meetings. “It’s an agenda of the robber baron era ... An agenda of the past, not the future.
Each of the three county commissioners told the Skagit Valley Herald they have not hired Weidner to push any agenda other than representing Skagit County in Washington, D.C.
Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt, the longest-serving commissioner and who identifies as a Democrat, said he was unaware of Weidner’s alleged right-wing agenda or involvement with groups outside the Evergreen Forest County Group, which Dahlstedt co-chairs with Chelan County Commissioner Doug England.
Several emails Weidner sent to the Evergreen group, including to commissioners and staff of Skagit County, state that one of his and the group’s top three priorities for 2017 has been to promote the idea of coordination.
An Aug. 4 email also states that Weidner has worked with American Stewards of Liberty’s Margaret Byfield, who spoke to the county in April about coordination in relation to grizzly bears.
Weidner and Byfield lobbied Congress to make coordination a requirement for federal agencies, according to the email. The result would be that the federal government would have to get the approval of states and counties for plans to manage federal lands, including to restore grizzly bears.
That email included an Aug. 3 letter in which members of Congress asked President Donald Trump to consider an executive order requiring federal agencies to adhere to coordination with counties on issues of environmental, natural resources and public lands issues.
The draft executive order states coordination would require federal agencies to conform plans for federal lands with state and local policies. It says the issue is that the federal government manages 640 million acres of land and decisions regarding natural resources on those lands affect local economies.
Dahlstedt said that what coordination means to him and the Evergreen group is entirely different from that of some others in the community.
“You can coordinate good things or you can coordinate divisive things. Look it up in the dictionary. It doesn’t say ‘county supremacy,’” Dahlstedt said.
For Skagit County officials, coordination is about having conversations, he said.
“We believe that the federal government, if they are going to do something that will impact the citizens of Skagit County, the government representatives of the county who are responsible for representing those citizens should be involved,” Dahlstedt said.
That’s why the county sought to be heard on the issue of grizzly bear restoration.
“We certainly want them to coordinate with us when we are affected: Our roads, our citizens, the safety of our people who live out in the timber lands,” Dahlstedt said. “We don’t have the power to tell the federal government they (grizzly bears) can’t come here, but we certainly can demand that they have a conversation with us about it.”
Dahlstedt said Skagit County is not interested in taking ownership of federal forest lands or in managing those lands.
“I’m a little bit surprised at the angst that has come out,” he said. “We have never asked Bob (Weidner) to do one thing about transferring federal lands to the county, which seems to be the concern.”
But the county does have concerns about how the lands are managed, particularly those in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, Dahlstedt said.
“They have allowed beetle infestations ... They are not managing underbrush, so when there are forest fires they are bigger and more problematic,” he said of the U.S. Forest Service.
Dahlstedt said because about 80 percent of Skagit County is timber lands and the county is home to Sierra Pacific, the largest timber mill in the state, proper management of timber lands is important.
Commissioner Lisa Janicki said she would like to see federal forest lands managed at the state level because the Department of Natural Resources has an understanding of local forests.
Dahlstedt, Janicki and Commissioner Ron Wesen said Weidner is an asset to the county because he has helped secure Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools program money for the county, as well as grants for projects including the Skagit River General Investigation Study and the Old Highway 99 overpass.
Skagit County Budget and Finance Director Trisha Logue said Weidner helped secure a $12 million Bridge Replacement Advisory Committee grant for the overpass.
“The job he has had for us in Washington, D.C., is coordinating meetings with departments and officials there. When we have a project we want to work on, he’s the one who makes the contacts for us,” Dahlstedt said, adding that Weidner is currently working on a proposal to get an electric ferry to service Guemes Island.
A question of priorities
Mount Vernon resident Tim Manns and his wife Brenda Cunningham said while they don’t deny Weidner has helped with some important issues for Skagit County, his other work raises concerns.
“There’s a long list of things that are just anathema to people in this county who care about the environment and believe that climate change is real,” Manns said.
In an email Weidner sent early in 2017 to commissioners from 13 Washington counties, he said he would represent the Evergreen group on Endangered Species Act issues including opposing North Cascades grizzly bear restoration, revoking federal climate change policies and promoting the concept of coordination.
“I trusted that with two Democrats on the county board of commissioners, I did not have to worry about right-wing influences taking root in our county government,” Cunningham told the commissioners Nov 21. “I don’t think this list of priorities fairly represents your constituents.”
This year wasn’t the first time that promoting the concept of coordination came up between Weidner and Skagit County.
An Evergreen group document from Oct. 1, 2014 — signed by co-chair Dahlstedt — states that the group, with support from Weidner, is “making a special effort to encourage policy ‘coordination’ a term, which, as defined means that federal agencies should conform to local government policies and plans rather than the other way around.”
Weidner said that to him, coordination is not about county supremacy, but about accountability.
“(Coordination) requires the federal agency to come in and explain itself to the local communities, not just hand them a plan for the federal lands. It gets counties a chance to come in and say this is what our priorities are ... The argument that it’s supremacy is bogus,” he said.
As for environmental issues, Weidner said a large part of his lobbying career has been spent ensuring counties in the Pacific Northwest — including Skagit — and in the Rocky Mountain region get the revenues from and a say in management of federal forest lands within their boundaries.
He said his focus on having federal climate change policies revoked is specifically centered on reversing executive orders that use a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“The climate change executive orders under the Obama administration were pretty much one size fits all,” Weidner said. “They need to be tapered to the industry involved, to the state involved and to the locale so that it’s not assuming that everyone is the same.”
History with a lobbyist
Since at least 2000, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on retaining Weidner to represent Skagit and other Washington counties in Washington, D.C., on issues such as the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides money to counties that previously relied on timber revenue to fund schools, and impacts of the Endangered Species Act on timber communities.
During that time, Skagit County has received a combined $19 million from the Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes programs, according to county records.
Several who raised concerns about Weidner said contracting with a lobbyist who they deem has extreme values is not an acceptable use of Skagit County taxpayers’ money.
“This man represents extreme views — views that I believe do not represent Skagit County residents,” Anacortes resident Kathleen Flanagan said. “I don’t want my tax dollars going to him.”
The Evergreen group is an affiliate of the Rural Public Lands County Council.
The council formed in 1998, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Since then, the council has solely hired Weidner, paying him $140,000 to $260,000 a year to lobby various federal agencies primarily on forestry, fossil fuel and mining issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Weidner said the Rural Public Lands County Council represents the Evergreen group, as well as several counties in Utah, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming.
Of his clients, the Rural Public Lands County Council has contracted him the longest and paid him the most — $3.1 million between 1999 and 2017 — according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act database. Skagit County has contributed $261,000 of that, according to county records compiled by Logue.
Weidner’s second-largest paying client, American Clean Energy Resource Trust, has paid $632,000 for his services since 2008, according to the database.
The trust is a coalition of concerned citizens, uranium exploration companies and mining companies who believe mining is important for the long-term economic health and energy security of the nation, according to its website.
The trust’s tagline is “Stop the whining, start the mining.”
Weidner has also lobbied for congressional candidates — all Republicans — and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act database.
Anne Winkes of Conway said Weidner’s history doesn’t align with the interests of many Skagit County voters, who have selected Democratic presidential and congressional candidates during the past decade. Mount Vernon resident Stephen Hunter encouraged the county to terminate the relationship with Weidner.
Dahlstedt told the Skagit Valley Herald that Weidner’s particular views on coordination don’t really matter for Skagit County because the commissioner did not hire him for that purpose.
“That would be like if we find out someone who did roofing for us roofed a mosque and we said, ‘Well, Muslims are in ISIS so now we’re supporting ISIS,’” he said. “If they (community members) are concerned about something he is doing for other counties in the state of Utah or other areas, they should talk to the commissioners of those areas.”
Dahlstedt said county officials will meet with concerned community members who want to discuss the issue.