Seattle (AP) Farmers and ranchers struggling against high grain prices got some help Thursday from a federal judge who cleared the way for an emergency federal program opening private conservation land to hay production and cattle grazing.
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 vegetation.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said after the court hearing that he was "ecstatic."
"This isn't just something that benefits the rancher," he said. "This is an economic stimulus package for rural America."
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."