Balance Sought for Landowners Dealing with Environmental Regulations - Jan. 11, 2016
ORLANDO, FLORIDA, January 11, 2016—The breadth, vagueness and punitive nature of many environmental laws provide challenges and uncertainty for farmers, ranchers and other property owners when it comes to navigating today’s environmental landscape in their farming and ranching activities.
“Environmental law can be harsh, especially for everyday people,” said Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. “The statutes are very broad, vague, and punitive. Pacific Legal Foundation and Farm Bureau are advocating for more sensible policies to protect landowners.”
Wood echoed the chorus of voices from farmers and ranchers from around the country in advocating for a balanced approach to enforcement of environmental laws during a workshop at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 97th Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show.
Having grown up on a small ranch in Texas, Wood learned the importance that water plays in agriculture. This has influenced his and the Pacific Legal Foundation’s work in cases dealing with the Clean Water Act and the ambiguities and uncertainties related to the selective interpretation of the act by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Despite assurances of exemptions for agriculture, farmers and ranchers have repeatedly been intimidated by the punitive nature of large fines and potential prison sentences for actions involving water – even when such projects have beneficial impacts for wildlife and the environment. Such is the current situation for Andy Johnson, a rancher from Wyoming who created a stock pond to provide water for his livestock.
“We are challenging an outrageous example of EPA overreach against a private citizen who has done nothing wrong,” Wood said. “Andy Johnson constructed a pond for his livestock by damming a stream on his private property with no connection to any navigable water. Under the plain terms of the Clean Water Act, he was entirely within his rights, and didn’t need federal bureaucrats’ permission.
“But EPA regulators have decided they know better than the law,” Wood continued. “By trying to seize control of Andy Johnson’s land — and threatening him with financial ruin — they are imposing their will where they have no authority. Ironically, EPA is attempting to destroy a scenic environmental asset that provides habitat for fish and wildlife, and cleans water that passes through it, all in the name of enforcing the Clean Water Act.”
In addition to the threat posed by fines and the breadth of impacts environmental rules can have, the vagueness of these rules and their interpretations by agencies will continue to pose a challenge to agriculture until the courts or Congress provide further guidance. This is why recent decisions – such as the Sackett case in Idaho – have been beneficial to farmers and ranchers, because the court ruled that private landowners have a right to direct judicial review regarding EPA decisions on land use.
“Agencies like the EPA or Fish and Wildlife Service…are motivated by single-minded and very aggressive views of their role in the world, which is to stop things that change the environment – even if those changes might be positive,” said Ellen Steen, AFBF’s general counsel. “When you have people like that populating agencies, we’ll always have agencies pushing the boundaries…and this is where the courts come in.”
Recent court decisions have provided landowners with remedies against agency actions, but landowners have continued to be the ones pushing for relief. Wood is hopeful that current and future cases will continue to balance the scale with landowners and agency actions.
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