July 25, 2008

Ruling May Bring Ranchers Relief

By Chris Casteel and John David Sutter, The Oklahoman

Jul. 25--A federal judge in Seattle ruled Thursday that ranchers who had been preparing to use land in a U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation program for haying and grazing can do so for a limited time. The ruling will open up about 200,000 acres of land in Oklahoma to ranchers desperate to feed their cattle.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, called the ruling a victory for Oklahoma farmers and ranchers. And a rancher in western Oklahoma said some cattlemen may be able to keep their livestock because of the judge's decision.

The judge's order stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation and some of its affiliates against the USDA, which was ready to open up millions of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program to haying and grazing for a nominal fee to give relief to ranchers struggling with a drought and high feed prices.

The order, issued by U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, lifted a temporary injunction that barred haying and grazing that had already been approved by the USDA on conservation program land.

Who is eligible? The judge's order will allow haying and grazing for the next few months for landowners:

-- Who had been approved by the USDA when the judge issued a temporary restraining order on July 8.

-- Whose applications were being processed when the July 8 order was issued and who qualify for the Critical Feed Use program.

-- Who can show that they need to use the Critical Feed Use program and have spent at least $4,500 preparing acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program.

But the judge made the rest of the land in the program off-limits to haying and grazing, ruling the environmental impact had not been properly assessed.

In Cimarron County, where locals are dealing with a drought that's been compared to the Dust Bowl, Thursday's news was well received, said Frances Glass, a program technician with the Farm Service Agency's local office.

Glass said ranchers are in a desperate situation.

Many have already sold off their cattle. Many would have taken a big financial hit had they not been allowed to graze their cattle on conservation land, he said.

Eugene Boyd, an 81-year-old cattle rancher west of Boise City, said some ranchers will be able to keep their cattle because of the decision.

"Some of them that didn't get rain, that's the only thing that's going to save 'em," he said.

Boyd said he trusts local conservation officials to make sure the grazing doesn't go so far as to damage the conservation land.

How the program works Nearly a third of all crop land in Cimarron County, at the tip of the Panhandle, is off limits to farming as part of the Conservation Reserve Program. Most cattle ranchers in the county already had applied for aid, and therefore will be eligible for the grazing program, Glass said.

There are more than 30 million acres under contract nationally in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to use land considered environmentally fragile.

In much of Oklahoma, land in the program is considered vulnerable to erosion, while in other parts of the country the program protects wetlands and natural wildlife habitats.

Under the Critical Feed Use program, landowners can pay a $75 fee to have their contracts modified to allow emergency haying and grazing.

Because of the drought in Oklahoma, farmers and ranchers in most counties can use their Conservation Reserve Program land for grazing now, but they must pay back 25 percent of the annual government payment they received for idling the land. For some ranchers, that penalty wouldn't be worth using it.

Lucas said Thursday, "Farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma are suffering through high feed costs and a severe drought, both of which are threatening their livelihoods.

"USDA made the right decision releasing CRP lands for haying and grazing use," Lucas said.

Julie Sibling, senior program manager for agriculture policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the ruling "guarantees that conservation remains the top priority and purpose of the Conservation Reserve Program, while taking into account the financial needs of the landowners already invested in opening their lands to increased haying and grazing.


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