Farmers oppose sagebrush plan
Roughly 2,800 acres called critical habitat; 13 landowners may be affected
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Washington state farmers are protesting federal protection for a sagebrush subspecies, saying they fear the government will take private property rights.
On May 23, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will list the White Bluffs bladderpod, a subspecies of sagebrush, as a threatened species.
The Franklin County Farm Bureau is asking county commissioners to file suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to seek an injunction if the agency won't delay the ruling for a 60-day comment period or longer.
"They've already done it, it's already become a rule, they've already got it passed, nobody knew about it," Farm Bureau vice president James Alford said.
Alford charges that the agency filed notice of its intent to list the bladderpod and other endangered species as part of a lawsuit settlement last year between the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
The service is designating roughly 2,800 acres as critical habitat for the plant, including 419 acres of private farm ground near the Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington state.
Ken Berg, manager of the Washington office for the agency, does not expect the listing to impact farmers.
The designation of private land as critical habitat identifies areas important to conservation of species.
"On private land, it has no direct effect, and it should not affect how landowners use their land," he said.
Alford said about 13 landowners are affected and the federal government did not alert county commissioners, congressional representatives or private property owners.
"Everyone we've talked to, not one person knew about it," he said.
He is concerned the designation will restrict access to the land.
The service claims the largest threat to the plant is landslides caused by nearby irrigation, Alford said. He thinks the attempt is to prevent agriculture by removing farmers' resources.
The majority of the impacted farmland has irrigation water rights but is not irrigated, Alford said.
"They're going to try to reduce traffic, animals, recreation through there," Alford said. "Even walking, just because of anything that could potentially step on the plant, hit the plant."
Alford said the service did not properly explain why private property should be included, assess the economic impact or contact landowners.
Berg said the plant is a unique part of "our natural heritage," and said unique life forms can provide important goods and services to society in the form of food, fiber or medicine.
"We are not smart enough to know at this point in time exactly what utilitarian benefits conserving the White Bluffs bladderpod would provide," he said. The ESA was enacted to ensure rich diversity of life is around for future generations, he said.
Berg plans to respond with a letter to the county commissioners by May 20. He hopes collaborations will continue moving forward.
His meetings in Franklin County this week give him confidence that "we can work together to address bladderpod conservation in a way that is not disruptive to the practices of the farmers and agriculture that are so important to Franklin County."
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and chairman of the House Committee of Natural Resources, opposes the action.
Hastings said he got involved because the listing affects private property. He questions the U.S. Department of the Interior listing the species alongside hundreds of other species as part of the settlement.
"Going through this process, there certainly was no local input from Fish and Wildlife to county commissioners and others that may be involved," he said. "It just seems to me that on something that could potentially affect somebody's livelihood, there needs to be a transparent system. The data that's collected in making this listing needs to be an open process and scientifically defendable."
Berg said his outreach to the community could have been more effective, noting he had more people wishing to comment after the decision than during the comment period from May 15-July 16 in 2012.