OKs emergency grazing program, with limits
Gene Johnson, Capital Press 7/24/08
(AP) - Farmers and ranchers struggling against high grain
prices got some help Thursday, July 24, from a federal judge
who cleared the way for an emergency federal program opening
private conservation land to hay production and cattle
U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour decided that while the
U.S. Department of Agriculture did not conduct an appropriate
environmental review before opening 24 million acres of
private conservation land around the country to haying and
grazing, it would be unfair to farmers and ranchers to stop
the program because many were counting on using that land.
The land at issue is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve
Program, a $2 billion-a-year federal program which pays
farmers not to plant crops in order to return fields to native
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington
Cattlemen's Association, said after the court hearing that he
"This isn't just something that benefits the rancher," he
said. "This is an economic stimulus package for rural
The National Wildlife Foundation and its Washington, Indiana,
South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana and Kansas chapters
initially sought an injunction to stop the emergency haying
and grazing program, which was announced in May. Although the
grazing and haying would only be allowed after primary nesting
season ends - this month or next, depending on the location -
the damage to wintering areas and habitat for grassland birds,
as well as water quality, could last for years, they argued.
The government responded that although 24 million acres were
eligible, farmers and ranchers were expected to apply to use
only about 2.5 million.
That eased the concerns of the environmentalists somewhat. In
court filings they asked the judge to cap the program at about
1.8 million acres - the amount of land farmers and ranchers
had filed applications for by early this month. In addition,
they suggested that any ranchers who had not yet submitted
their applications or $75 fee could be approved if they could
show they had invested $5,000 or more on fencing, wells,
haying equipment or other expenses in preparation for using
the conservation land.
"Our problem was not with the individual farmers and ranchers
by any means, but with the government's failure to analyze the
environmental impacts of taking such a broad, sweeping action
as opening 24 million acres to haying and grazing," said Sarah
McMillan, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney who
represented the National Wildlife Federation. "Some of those
farmers and ranchers are in a crisis, and we did understand
they had made investments."
The judge agreed to limit the program to those farmers and
ranchers who had already applied to use their conservation
land for haying or grazing by July 8, the day he imposed a
temporary restraining order halting the program. The USDA may
also approve any other applications as long as ranchers show
that by July 8 they had invested $4,500 or more in making
preparations to use the land.
Danielle Quist, assistant general counsel for the American
Farm Bureau Federation, said she appreciated the consideration
the judge showed the ranchers, farmers and local economies.
"You've got to understand, farmers and ranchers work on very
tight profit margins," she said. "When you've purchased
fences, livestock, the transportation and medicine that goes
with that, bailers, dug stock wells, and you're not going to
get anything for it, that'll put you out of business."
Tom Hendrickson, a rancher with a 450 cow-calf pair operation
in Washington state's rural southeastern corner, said he spent
$40,000 on haying equipment. Furthermore, he didn't order hay
from his usual source. If he had not been able to use the
conservation land, he might have been forced to buy as much as
1,000 tons of hay at the exorbitant price of $240 a ton, he
said - and $240,000 is more than all of his calves sell for.
"This is real good news," he said Thursday. "We've been
sitting on the middle of the fence. It would have put a lot of
people out here out of business."