By TIM HEARDEN
WILLITS, Calif. -- The Golden State's largest farm organization has agreed to pull out of a lawsuit to stop a highway bypass project here in return for concessions related to area farmland.
The California Farm Bureau Federation had joined environmentalists' suit against the state Department of Transportation and two federal agencies last year, citing concerns that the planned Highway 101 project would cause a loss of agriculture.
The CFBF announced late April 24 that it had settled after Caltrans agreed to participate in discussions over farmland and to cooperate with a University of California study on the benefits of allowing grazing on wetlands.
Caltrans also agreed to meet with farmers and ranchers adjacent to lands set aside as mitigation for the highway project to discuss how requirements may impact their ability to continue to operate, the CFBF explained in a news release.
"We're pleased that we were able to come up with a way to address some of our concerns outside of litigation," CFBF attorney Jack Rice said.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and other groups against the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Caltrans. The environmental groups asserted the bypass would pose a risk to farmland, threatened fish, trees and wetlands.
The state Farm Bureau joined the lawsuit last summer because of concerns about the amount of farmland the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to remove from production to mitigate for wetlands lost to the bypass.
"Our major concern was really with the Army Corps' mitigation strategy," Rice said. "The only way they wanted to see mitigation was to get rid of all agricultural production and let the land returned to an unmanaged ... condition. That's really problematic.
"There's a lot of science supporting the fact that grazing is not only consistent with a healthy, functioning wetland, but ... you can use grazing to enhance wetland function," he said.
The study by UC-Davis and UC Cooperative Extension researchers will compare the conditions of state-owned land where grazing is required and federally owned land where it is prohibited. The scientists will consider how to optimize grazing productivity while achieving desired wetlands enhancements, the CFBF explained in its release.
"The discussion between Caltrans and farmers in the Willits area should solidify the foundation for agriculture to remain in the area for decades to come," CFBF president Paul Wenger said in a statement, "and the study should help advance the understanding of how to achieve overlapping agricultural and ecological objectives."
California Farm Bureau Federation: http://www.cfbf.com/
California Department of Transportation: http://www.dot.ca.gov/
Federal Highway Administration: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: http://www.usace.army.mil/
UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources: http://ucanr.edu/
Center for Biological Diversity: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/