For Dan Happel, the first few weeks on the job have been busy, but very enjoyable.
“I’m enjoying this, I really am,” said the new Madison County Commissioner. “There’s a lot of time invested but it’s stuff I enjoy doing. I feel like I’m in right place at the right time to make a difference in a positive way.”
Happel represents Madison County Commission District 2, which encompasses the northern part of the county from Twin Bridges over to Harrison and includes the communities of Silver Star and Pony.
Much of Happel’s first month has been spent building relationships with people in the Twin Bridges area, particularly during the flooding in January.
“I’m developing some great friendships, some great relationship over there,” he said.
Since he first decided to run for commissioner, Happel has been very outspoken about his support of property rights and belief in the coordination process that he believes would give the county more control over decisions made by the state and federal government that have local impacts. Both items are is still his focus now.
Happel is focused on a piece of legislation currently winding its way through the Montana Legislature that would make Montana a coordinating state, paving the way for Madison County to become a coordinating county, Happel said.
Coordination means that if the federal or state government wanted to do something in Madison County that would impact its citizens, then the county commissioners could demand a seat at the table, he said.
“All it does is say we’ve got a seat at the table and we can use the input of the citizens in the decision making process,” Happel said.
Right now, state and federal agencies have no reason to pay attention to county commissioners, he said.
“They have nothing really compelling them to listen to what we say or act on our requests,” Happel said.
Too often ill-conceived legislation, such as Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, has gone forward without adequate input from local officials, he said. Coordination would make state and federal agencies more accountable to local citizens. It would also put the responsibility on county commissioners to be responsive to their constituents.
“Under coordination, it’s back in our laps and I don’t mind that,” Happel said. “That’s part of our jobs.”
To become a coordinating county, the coordination bill needs to work its way through the legislature and then Madison County Commissioners only need to pass a resolution that would include a mission statement of sorts outlining the county’s priorities, he said.
The coordination angle could come into play with the Mountain States Transmission Intertie, which is a electric transmission project proposed by NorthWestern Energy that would involve building high-voltage transmission lines through parts of western Madison County.
If Madison County was a coordinating county, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Bureau of Land Management would both have to provide analysis and information on the project to county commissioners and coordinate with them on the decision on whether or not to permit the MSTI project, Happel said.
As he describes it, the coordination process has no downside for the county. Concerns over increased liability for lawsuits over proposed projects are misguided because the county wouldn’t be the agency responsible for the decisions, he said.
And the county wouldn’t have to hire experts to analyze projects like MSTI, because it would be the permitting agency’s responsibility to provide the information, Happel said. All the county would be required to do is review the information and work with the permitting agencies on a decision.
On the issue of private property rights, the proposed setbacks on the Madison River are of great concern for Happel. And though he hasn’t made up his mind on how he will vote when the county commissioners finally take up the matter, he’s adamant about protection private property rights.
“My philosophy is very strongly in favor of private property rights being respected,” he said. “I want to make sure whatever decisions are made that they originate in Madison County … and they are respective of property owners in Madison County. I’m concerned that a lot of decisions being made locally are originating outside the state.”
Like his fellow commissioner, Happel is also concerned with roads in his district. But one road in particular has him worried.
The road up the South Boulder River is narrow and rough an serves as both the access and exit route for all of the residents of the South Boulder Canyon.
Happel’s concern is that a forest fire or some other natural catastrophe in that area could make it difficult if not impossible for residents to leave and emergency workers to access the area.
“We’ve got to get much better access and a much better emergency road system,” he said. “It’s literally a single lane road all the way up there.”
Solving the problem is going to be tough and take some coordination between the county, Forest Service, BLM and local residents.
“I’m going to try and coordinate with the proper agencies to try and get people to work together to solve that problem,” Happel said.
Happel will also travel to Germany this year with University of Montana forestry professor Peter Kolb to look at forest management issues.