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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Feds focused on single rancher dispute despite efforts to solve similar land use issues

Walter “Sonny” Riley 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. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Walter “Sonny” Riley 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. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A rancher caught up in a legal dispute over his use of a strip of public land next to the Snake River is trying to solve the same issue with other area ranchers, but federal officials are focused on solving only his case first, attorneys said.

Walter “Sonny” Riley, 71, said earlier this month that he wants the ongoing negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers to settle not only his land dispute but also to include 23 other ranchers who have similar concerns about strips of government-owned land that buffer the Snake River near the closed Central Ferry State Park.

In an earlier interview, U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington emphasized that the current legal dispute deals only with Riley. And in a follow-up letter, Lt. Col. Christian Dietz emphasized that the current negotiations do not include the other landowners that Riley mentioned.

U.S. attorneys and the Corps “are involved in land exchange discussions with only one livestock owner – Mr. Walter Riley, as part of ongoing civil litigation negotiations,” Dietz wrote. “The land exchange negotiations with Mr. Riley, if successful, would effectively resolve/settle the litigation.”

While the government focuses on the one issue, Riley continues to seek solutions for the other ranchers, his attorney Toni Meacham said.

Sonny Riley is committed to not only helping himself but helping his neighbors as well,” Meacham said. “I don’t know that we will see that as a reality at this point. I can’t really comment about ongoing negotiations with the government.”

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

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 Army Corps of Engineers bought the strip of land in 1965 from his father, Lester Riley. But the 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, lease or trade for the property in question.

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