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Seattle Judge Orders Compromise in National Grazing Case, Pleasing Some Farmers

July 18, 2008

By Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times

Jul. 18–A federal judge in Seattle Thursday 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 C. Coughenour is keeping in place 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 (USDA) May decision to open up land now protected under the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP.)

The CRP is the country’s largest conservation program on private land. Farmers are paid not to plant sensitive lands.

Coughenour gave the sides until noon Tuesday to work out elements of a compromise. That might 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, he promised to issue an order by the end of next week implementing a modified version of the so-called Critical Feed Use program nationwide.

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

Hay costs have increased to as much as $200 a ton in some areas, up from $175 to $100 just three years ago. Hay is scarce because farmers are growing corn and wheat instead, because of high prices for those crops.

Farmers also would be allowed to keep collecting CRP payments while taking advantage of the program.

But The National Wildlife Federation and six state chapters, including the Washington Wildlife Federation contend 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 Thursday, Coughenour seemed to agree. He told USDA lawyers that the agency’s own regulations called for better analysis than what was provided to the public, which Coughenour dismissed as “a joke. ” He added the agency’s actions were “breathtaking.”

The Wildlife Federation argues the feed program could irreparably harm birds and other wildlife, water quality and soil conservation.

The USDA prepared no environmental-impact statement, nor much other analysis of the effects. In Washington state, up to 1.5 million acres, or up to 10 percent of all crop lands, are now enrolled in the CRP program.

But Coughenour also said he is aware of the need to balance the competing harms of environmental injury with the impact on employment, local economies, and even the world economy if he totally blocks the program, as opponents requested.

The case has been closely watched by cattlemen across the region and the nation.

Last week, when Coughenour first imposed a restraining order on the program, a cattleman from Asotin County who was interviewed by The Seattle Times publicly wondered whether Coughenour “had ever been off the asphalt.”

In court Thursday, Coughenour — who grew up in Kansas — had an answer:

“I have been off the asphalt,” he said.”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.”

The judge said he wanted a compromise in place in time for some farmers to still be able to utilize the program, and he said he knows that in some southern states every day counts.

Some farmers wearing their best boots and belt buckles rose before dawn Thursday and drove to Seattle to attend the hearing.

“It was nice to see he understood agriculture and had a background in it,” said Ryan Raymond, who raises cattle and wheat in 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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