A balancing act amidst conflicting interests

by Birgitta Jansen | Matt Kingsley, stocky of build and easy in presence, has a demanding job encompassing a wide variety of tasks and balancing many conflicting interests. But it suits him.

Matt was born and raised in a Mennonite Community in Indiana, the second youngest in a family of six boys and two girls. His father taught agriculture and mom was a first grade teacher. When Matt was two years old, the Mennonite Community sent his father to Indonesia to teach agricultural practices to farmers on the island of Timor. However he remembers little from the family’s time there. They returned to Indiana three years later.

Their household “was big on education,” and involvement with some aspect of education and teaching became a vital aspect in all their lives. This eventually became true for Matt as well, but he took a somewhat different route. He explained that a life style involving agriculture and being outdoors has always appealed to him. To this day he maintains a small barnyard at his house, loves to garden and his passion is building houses. He always enjoyed working with his hands.

Together with a friend, he did start Junior College in Toledo, but it didn’t take long for the two young men to decide that this wasn’t for them. Instead the wide open road and adventure beckoned. Matt still remembers a decision so easily made but that, in retrospect, determined their future. As he recalled the still vivid story, “My friend already had a car, so we got some money together, spread a map of the U.S out on the kitchen table, and put dots on the map in those places where we knew people who might put us up for a brief while. Soon thereafter we said goodbye to Ohio and headed west.” The low point of their six- week trip occurred when their car’s transmission gave up in Los Cruces NM. “The repairs ate up a lot of our money,” he recalled with a chuckle.

He continued his story, “We finally landed in San Francisco where my friend also knew people. They not only put us up but also put us to work in a hotel that they owned in the mountains. We mostly did general maintenance around the place. One day, when we were out doing yard work, when a lady stopped by and asked if we were interested in becoming fire fighters for the U.S. Forest Service. This opportunity looked good to us, and it didn’t take us long to make a decision. We both became fire fighters. For me, this turned into a 35 year career.”

They joined the wildlands fire crew in 1972. Matt worked his way up and over time became the Fire Chief for the Inyo NF and the Bishop BLM.

A significant event in Matt’s life occurred in 1989. He was diagnosed with Acoustic Neuroma; a brain tumor that caused him to start losing his hearing. His voice quieted when he recalled, “It was a six month process, the surgery, then recovery time. This was a big event for me. It made me more humble and appreciative of life in a small town. It altered me.”

After a solid 35 year career, he retired from this position in 2007, at age 52. He explained that he could have continued his career path but this would have meant a move out of the Owens Valley. Matt knew one thing for certain — he did not want to leave Lone Pine. So he looked around for another opportunity, which came when he was hired as office manager at the Rio Tinto Borax Mine near Owens Lake.

Not long after being hired at the Rio Tinto Mine he became more involved with the Lone Pine community. He was already coaching the high school basketball team and taught a fire-science class, when he became interested in becoming a School Board member with the Lone Pine Unified School District. He was elected in 2008 and served as President of the Board from 2011 until 2013.

During the five years that he worked for the mine, he found that although he liked the job he felt that he was not well suited to it. He considered running for the District 5 Supervisory position with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. He was elected in 2012 for a four year term, re-elected for a second term starting in 2016, a third term
in 2020, and currently serves as the Board Chair.

The Board of Supervisors is the legislative and executive body of county government. It is responsible for the county budget, administers all local government services, provides local leadership, determines the priority issues for the county, and develops long-term plans. In order to work effectively, county supervisors must establish sound working relationships with each other and with many other agencies and branches of government. Matt also serves in various other capacities and is on eleven boards and advisory committees in the community including the Public Lands Committee of the National Association of Counties. California has 58 counties, 37 of which are in rural areas. Matt is a member of the Rural County Representatives of California, which is, as he described it, a powerful lobbying group. He is a past Chair of the organization. But what Matt values most about being the 5th District Supervisor is being involved with the many small communities.

Inyo County is complex and diverse. District 5 reaches from Lone Pine south to the Kern County line, and from Lone Pine east to the Nevada border. With its 7500 square miles it covers three-fourths of the land in Inyo County. It is not only the county’s largest supervisorial district, but also the ninth largest district in the contiguous U.S. Yet it has the lowest population density. The communities include: Charleston View, Darwin, Keeler, Olancha, Panamint Springs, Shoshone, and Tecopa. Most of Death Valley National Park and Mt. Whitney are also in District 5. On a whimsical note Matt added, “I have extreme landscapes and constituents to match.”

Matt views himself not necessarily as a politician or a supervisor but, as he explained, “I really see myself as a representative of the constituents in District 5; my job is to represent them and the landscape.” This involves dealing with a considerable array of diverse groups: Federal, State and local agencies, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; Indian Tribes, small businesses; the tourist industry, agricultural interests, many special interest groups, and a small number of businesses involved in resource extraction.

“I have to ensure that I understand people’s interests well enough to represent them. If I feel that what they want may not be the best way to go, I need to be able to logically explain why this is so. I research the issues as they come up,   even those I don’t support. I take what is good for the area into consideration and determine what is in the interests of constituents in the long-run.” Matt needs to know about agriculture, water issues, and natural resources, and he must also respond to a myriad of other issues that affect the daily lives of his constituents.

When asked about the differences between the interests of environmental groups and the resource extraction industries and other ventures that impact land in ways that environmentalists cannot support, Matt agreed that there was a source of tension here. He explained, “The tension between the environmental and non-environmental groups comes down to how public lands are being managed and what the effects are of those decisions. Environmentalists would prefer no resource extraction across the board. But the same groups do not say that they don’t need minerals, timber, electricity or cell phones. My job is then to figure out if some of those things do need to happen here. If, for example, there is no good place to get lithium, how do we keep our cell phones? We can demand that timber not come from our National Forests. But when more housing is urgently needed, where should the building materials come from?” He continued by pointing out that, “An argument could be made that the place where we obtain resources should be as close to home as possible. That gives us the opportunity to provide regulations to address environmental concerns, safety concerns, and set standards. If resources come from elsewhere we have no control over the regulation of those industries. I think about all of that when trying to balance the interests of such different groups. Whenever possible I strive for consensus.”

Matt pointed out that “92 percent of the land in Inyo County is federally owned. Sixty-five percent of that is designated wilderness. That’s a huge percentage for any county. The county has little say over how Federal Lands are used, especially with regard to land designated as wilderness. There are situations where, as Matt explained, “it made sense to support the wilderness designation of certain pieces of land,” and he has done so in the past. But he would like to see other designations, for example: “primitive roadless” and “primitive roaded (with roads but unmaintained), so that land would still be protected but in a less restrictive ways that should include fewer restrictive fire suppression techniques and allow for multiple recreational use.”

Matt mentioned that, “The county does receive a annual payment of approximately two million dollars from the Federal Government in lieu of taxes, because we do provide necessary services for the many visitors that come into this area to recreate: road maintenance, Search and Rescue and medical services, garbage collection, and so on. That money is not a gift. These payments must also be re-authorized annually.”

The funding challenges for Inyo County lie in the fact that only 1.7 percent of the land in the county is private land and on the tax roll. This means that the funding to maintain services in the county remains precarious and Matt works to protect and add to the sources of income that the county has. The local school districts as well as the hospital district, desperately need additional funding for maintenance and other expenses. Matt explained, “The community has been asked to vote for a local tax increase to fund these services but to no avail.” More local businesses could provide additional employment and increase tax monies without the need to increase the local tax rate. Matt added, “The lack of funding for the county impacts our ability to keep essential services available.”

Agriculture and mining are important to the local economy but tourism and recreation are the main drivers in the privet sector. Matt expressed concern about this “Many of our jobs are in the hospitality industry and tend to be low-paying jobs: restaurants, accommodation, shops, etc. In addition, we are, right now, seeing how vulnerable these jobs are to changes in the economy. The pandemic has been devastating. It is unknown how fast our tourism industry can be restored. Clearly our county would greatly benefit from a more diversified economy. Resource extraction could provide well-paying jobs and increased tax base but like the tourism industry they can be boom and bust operations. But I don’t exclude it off-hand either. I believe that, in particular, exploratory mining proposals should be supported to allow potential projects to be fully vetted. I don’t agree with immediately saying ‘no’ because they are a mining proposal. Can they mine economically, responsibly and provide long term benefit to the local community?” From Matt’s perspective, these are questions that need to be addressed before support or opposition can be determined. When proposals are for ventures on public lands, then a federal agency, usually BLM, plays the major role in the decision making process.

When the needs of the county are at odds with the interests promoted by environmentalists, his priority becomes representing the needs of the county and, as he explained, “I just try to get the best working agreements that I can get, although there is really no clear answer as to how to deal with these conflicts. We have to consider matters case by case.” After a slight pause in the conversation he said, with resolve now audible in his voice, “I have to accept that I win some and lose some.”

What Matt would really like to see is the leadership of Inyo County having an enhanced voice when land use decisions are being made. He explained that sometimes deals are made by more powerful interest groups, and in the past the county was not always given a seat at the table when deals were made. He added, “Right now it is not an equal playing field. This means that my job is to build and maintain relationships, understand the issues, and advocate for the county and its constituents the best I can.”

Birgitta Jansen has volunteered in Death Valley National Park since 2008. She has authored a number of articles in the Desert Report previously, and is currently completing a book about the flash flood of October 2015.