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Feds and ranchers working to find land to settle Snake River property disputes

Rancher Walter “Sonny” Riley, 71, sits atop his horse “Oly” on Thursday, February 8, 2018, on his ranch near Central Ferry, Wash. Riley is caught in a land dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His lawyer and assistant u.s. attorneys are currently working on a land swap that would resolve the public-land dispute with 23 ranchers along the Snake River. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Unlike recent rancher disputes with the federal government that have led to standoffs, it appears that two dozen cattlemen and U.S. attorneys have decided to work together to settle a legal dispute over a narrow strip of public land between the ranches and the Snake River.

U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian held a teleconference Thursday in which Assistant U.S. Attorneys Rudy Verschoor and Vanessa Waldref agreed with prominent ranching attorney Karen Budd-Falen that both sides are continuing to work on a potential land swap that would resolve land disputes with 23 ranchers.

“It appears the parties are actively trying to resolve this case,” Bastian said. “It seems to me that setting a trial date right now is not something we should worry about.”

The yearslong dispute escalated in January when the government filed a civil action in federal court seeking to sanction rancher Walter “Sonny” Riley, 71, for “trespass, encroachment, damages” on a small strip of land between his ranch and the railroad tracks that border the Snake River near the closed Central Ferry State Park.

According to the 19-page complaint, federal land managers accuse Riley of profiting from the use of the public land in question. The government’s case documents multiple interactions with Riley’s River Ranch employees dating back to 2011.

It alleges that Riley and his employees “unlawfully” grazed animals, operated a “winter feedlot operation” and built unauthorized structures on federal land. It also alleges the ranch placed hay bales, feeders, machinery, debris, tires, manure piles and “a pile of over fifty animal carcasses” on the disputed land.

In an interview earlier this year, Riley said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought the strip of disputed land in 1965 from his father, Lester Riley. But the Army Corps never put a fence on the entire border and he had, over the years, allowed cattle to graze it. The ranch also used it as a calving area.

Riley also said he’s offered to buy or lease the property in question. He and his nephew, Chad Lindgren, said they purchased 1,000 acres along the Tucannon River with the idea of trading the land to the Army Corps to settle their and other similar disputes with ranchers along the Snake River.

But the agreement fell through when a federal land manager said Riley and Lindgren would have to pay about $100,000 to study the proposed land trade.

Reached Thursday, Riley said the 1,000 acres near the Tucannon River are no longer on the table.

“We are looking for a piece of property that is equal to the piece they are wanting to trade,” Riley said. “They want land along water.”

So far, the search for the property to swap continues.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington confirmed the government is trying to find a solution to the issue. “The parties are currently in negotiations to see if a land exchange is a viable option,” he said.

The issue began more than 50 years ago when the Army Corps purchased the land to raise the water level of the Snake River. Much of the government-owned land was never marked and most ranchers continued to allow their cows to graze right up to the fence that separates the pastures from the railroad tracks on the north side of the river.

Other than two ranchers who opted out of the effort, Riley said the proposed land swap would transfer the small strip of public land to 23 ranches from Little Goose Dam all the way to the Idaho border.

“I haven’t had the time to get all the neighbors organized on the Whitman County (south) side,” Riley said. “It’s just one side.”

As part of the legal agreement, Budd-Falen and the federal attorneys agreed that the ranchers would pay the initial administrative costs for studying the land swap by Sept. 20.

“It is Mr. Riley’s intent to meet the Sept. 20 deadline, barring some unforeseen emergency,” Budd-Falen said during the conference call.

She supported Judge Bastian’s idea of a status conference in six months, “just because of the time it takes to get through the chain of command with the government with land proposals.”

Government attorneys noted in court records that “the Secretary of the Army must approve a land exchange and determine that the land exchange is in the best interest of the Corps and the public.”

Until the potential land is found, Riley said he doesn’t know how much it will cost the ranchers to process the transfer to complete the deal.

“We are trying,” Riley said. “Optimism is the best way to keep going.”