Groups file briefs in CRP case | TSLN.com

Groups file briefs in CRP case

Chris Clayton, DTN Staff Reporter

DTN file photoIn May, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Ed Schafer announced a program allowing haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve land after the wildfowl nesting season is over, provided landowners receive permission from USDA.

SEATTLE, WA (DTN) – Any court decision blocking USDA from allowing temporary haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land this summer would effectively defeat the entire initiative, farm groups argued in a brief they filed in a court case brought against USDA by the National Wildlife Federation and six state affiliates.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council filed a joint friend of the court brief defending USDA’s right to allow haying and grazing on CRP land this summer and fall to alleviate some of the high feed prices facing livestock producers. The brief was supported by accompanying statements from several state agricultural departments and individual farmers and ranchers.

In a separate court brief, the National Wildlife Federation and its state affiliates argue that livestock producers should be prevented from haying or grazing while the federal court case continues, based on the likelihood that the wildlife groups will prove USDA did not follow proper procedures when creating the critical feed-use initiative. The wildlife groups maintain USDA did not conduct a proper environmental impact study before announcing the haying and grazing program last May.

When the case was filed last week, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour of the Western District for Washington in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order preventing farmers and ranchers from enrolling in the program or attempting to utilize it. The National Wildlife Federation now wants a preliminary injunction to block the program until the case plays out in court.

A court hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning at the federal courthouse in Seattle.

U.S. Agricultural Secretary Ed Schafer announced the program as a way to provide more feed to livestock producers. As much as 24 million acres could be eligible under the program. Based on enrollment figures, USDA projected in a court brief earlier this week that about 2.5 million acres would likely be involved in the program.

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The lawsuit does not affect emergency haying and grazing enrollment in counties considered disaster areas or contiguous to disaster areas. Landowners in large swaths of the country have been able to enroll in those programs because of flooding, drought and other natural disasters this year.

In their court filing, agricultural groups argue that this is not a typical case because of the timing involved. Given that the National Wildlife Federation waited more than a month to file its lawsuit, landowners in most states are now being blocked from participating in the program, which already allowed a narrow window to hay or graze. A continued injunction would further harm any value from the program, the groups argue.

“A preliminary injunction of the (critical feed use) initiative, no matter how long it takes, would leave many of the farmers and ranchers who hope to take advantage of the initiative in a limbo they cannot afford,” the agricultural groups stated.

Further, many farmers and ranchers have already invested money to take part in the feed program, the groups said. Farm Bureau, NCBA and NPPC asked members for statements about the impact of blocking the initiative, and “the response was overwhelming. Dozens of farmers and ranchers around the country volunteered to submit declarations to the court.”

The ag groups cited several farmers who would be hurt. One, a 21-year-old New Mexico rancher, agreed to lease 1,000 acres of CRP in New Mexico and 320 acres in Texas. He took out a $55,000 loan and spent $5,850 for water, fencing, feed, medicine and trucking, the agricultural groups stated. If he is blocked from grazing on the land, the young rancher could face bankruptcy, the groups stated.

In its brief, the National Wildlife Federation dismissed costs to landowners or livestock producers, citing another rule declaring that “the loss of anticipated revenues … does not outweigh the potential irreparable damage to the environment.”

The wildlife groups maintain there would be permanent harm to nesting birds and other wildlife if haying and grazing is allowed. The NWF argued that long after the haying and grazing ends, wildlife would suffer from reduction in winter cover, nesting habitat and forage.

The agricultural groups maintain there would be no permanent harm to the environment or changes to the land. They pointed out that even during the time set aside under the Critical Feed Use initiative, landowners would have to continue reserving land for wildlife, and the most sensitive CRP ground would not be eligible for the program. After the haying and grazing period ends Nov. 10, CRP participants would then have to re-establish vegetative cover at their own expense.

According to the agricultural groups’ brief, the Farm Service Agency had received 11,000 applications under the critical use program by July 7 and had approved 4,000 CRP participants to take part in the program.

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com