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Hill staffers spend August work period learning from local communities

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Yellowstone National Park sign.

Members of Congress recently spent the August district work period on community tours, hosting roundtable discussions, and speaking directly with Americans from all walks of life in their districts. They brought back valuable feedback to our nation’s capital after spending six weeks visiting with their respective constituencies across the country.

When Capitol Hill clears out each summer, many of us Hill staffers often use the time as an opportunity to catch up on work and dig out of our inboxes; but it is also important to recognize the many staffers who spend their summer traveling the country to learn more about the unique challenges and opportunities facing the communities our bosses represent.

A major pillar of the Congressional Western Caucus’ mission is to equip members of Congress — and their staffs — with the opportunity to visit with constituents in rural America and learn more about the major issues impacting these communities, including natural resources, agriculture, energy, and forest and land management matters. We believe listening to Americans directly — outside of Washington, D.C. and on their own turf — is a crucial component to learning from our neighbors and understanding their concerns.

This August, more than 40 staffers joined 18 members of Congress in spending several days in the Bozeman, Mont. area with the Western Caucus Foundation for field tours and policy discussions. We dove into conservation and agricultural challenges with local and national leaders, including discussing topics like severe drought plaguing the rural West and how the outdated Endangered Species Act is harming local farmers, recreationists, sportsmen and landowners.

We spent time on the Madison River to learn more about ecological diversity and on-the-ground conservation efforts with local scientists. Members and staff also participated in a walking-tour in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest with U.S. Forest Service (USFS) officials and City of Bozeman engineers to hear about a collaborative watershed project between federal, state and local entities developed to protect Bozeman’s drinking water supply.

From there, the delegation spent a day in Yellowstone National Park with Superintendent Cam Sholly to see firsthand the devastation the historic flood from earlier this summer has ravaged on the North Entrance of the Park and its surrounding gateway communities. As Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary, staffers now have a much more comprehensive understanding of the critical work federal agencies, park employees, the state of Montana, and local partners have conducted to ensure the American people have access to this crown jewel of the National Park System.

Bipartisan Capitol Hill staffers also visited other regions of the West and rural America throughout the month. Local governments often strategically utilize this time to organize staff briefings in the field. The Five and Six County Associations of Governments host staff in rural communities across Utah each summer to learn about the issues uniquely impacting their region in light of the fact that more than 70 percent of the state’s lands are publicly-owned. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association brought staff out to the Cowboy State to tour a range of agriculture, industry, and conservation operations to highlight the state’s long history of maximizing the multiple use mandate.

Other state-based organizations like Leadership Idaho Agriculture and Iowa Renewable Fuels Association host congressional staff annually to highlight the distinct innovation taking place in the agriculture and energy sectors in their states. Many staffers also spend time visiting our nation’s land grant universities in the summer, too. Amongst a myriad of research areas, Washington State University highlighted its facility focused on studying the impact of smoke taint on wine grape production with staffers. The University of Nebraska featured continued advancements in agricultural technology and engineering with visitors from Capitol Hill.

This summer, the USFS brought bipartisan staff to see the National Fire Interagency Center headquarters in Boise, Idaho, and to tour the Service’s ongoing firefighting operations in northern California on the Six Rivers Lightning Complex fire, which has burned more than 40,000 acres since early August.

Whether it’s learning more about the impacts of catastrophic wildfires and poor forest management on local communities, the indispensable role farmers and ranchers play in conserving our nation’s lands, the lack of certainty facing our mining and energy sectors due to ever-expanding federal regulations, or the critical need for additional water infrastructure in the West, the opportunity to see and hear firsthand about these significant issues is invaluable.

As we return to our offices with more firsthand knowledge of the unique matters impacting districts across the country, I could not be prouder to serve alongside my fellow Capitol Hill aides who take their personal time, energy, and interest to travel the nation, learn from our neighbors, and better equip themselves with the information and understanding needed to tackle policymaking that so greatly affects local communities and the rural West.

Our nation’s elected officials are in a stronger position when they are surrounded by staff — their fellow public servants — who prioritize listening to local communities.

Sean V. O’Brien is executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus.

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