SEATTLE – A judge allowed hay production and cattle grazing on certain lands designated for conservation Thursday, helping farmers and ranchers struggling with high grain prices.
U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour said the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not conduct an appropriate environmental review before it opened 24 million acres of conserved land to haying and grazing, but that a reversal would be unfair to farmers and ranchers 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 he was “ecstatic” with the decision.
“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 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 – July or August, depending on the location – the damage to bird habitat and 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.
The judge is limiting the program to those farmers and ranchers who applied to use conservation land for haying or grazing by July 8. The USDA may approve other applicants who show they made investments before that date in anticipation of using their conserved 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.