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Seattle Judge Demands Compromise in National Grazing Fight

July 17, 2008

By Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times

Jul. 17–A federal judge in Seattle today ordered the federal government and members of the National Wildlife Federation to find a compromise in their fight over a plan to allow grazing and hay production on millions of acres of conservation land across the country.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour is keeping a temporary restraining order he issued last week after a suit was filed by the National Wildlife Federation and six affiliates over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to open land now protected under the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Coughenour gave both sides until noon Tuesday to work out elements of a compromise. Those elements may include limiting the acres eligible for haying and grazing to no more than 2.5 million nationally, forbidding further use of the program without first conducting an environmental review, and prohibiting use of the program on lands that have already been recently hayed or grazed.

In return, Coughenour promised to issue an order by the end of next week implementing a modified version of the so-called Critical Fed Use program nationwide.

The CRP program, begun in 1985, pays farmers across the country not to plant on fragile lands and return them to native grasses and vegetation.

The Critical Feed Use initiative was meant to help cattlemen suffering from high feed prices. It would allow hay production and grazing on CRP land to boost production of cattle forage.

The National Wildlife Federation chapters, including the Washington Wildlife Federation, argue that the government should have performed an environmental assessment before implementing the program, which could affect as many as 24 million acres across the country.

In court today, Coughenour seemed to agree with the federation, telling lawyers for the USDA that the agency’s own regulations called for better analysis than what was provided to the public. He called that analysis “a joke” and described the agency’s actions as “breathtaking.”

The judge said he wants the compromise in place before the haying and grazing season ends.

The case has been closely watched by cattlemen across the nation. One cattleman from Asotin County last week publicly questioned whether the judge “had ever been off the asphalt.”

Coughenour had an answer for him today:

“I cut my teeth haying, I started at age 13. I picked corn one ear at a time, walking behind the wagon. I’ve plowed hay fields and wheat fields for hundreds and hundreds of hours.”

Some farmers got up in the dark and drove hours to Seattle to attend the hearing, wearing their best boots and belt buckles.

“It was nice to see he understood agriculture and had a background in it,” said Ryan Raymond, a cattleman and wheat farmer from Helix, Ore.

“You come here to the city and you wonder if they have ever seen a bale of hay, or a cow.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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