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Farmers Rebel Over Wetlands Regulations : Environment: The furor is fueling a movement that could lead Congress to gut protective laws in the name of property rights.


WASHINGTON — The rich soil and sloughs of Kingsbury County, S.D., are the stuff of Americana, made famous through the Little House on the Prairie books.

Now that part of the country is the focal point of a growing rebellion by farmers over the government's regulation of wetlands. Producers say they're being harassed and threatened with financial ruin.

The furor is fueling a property-rights movement that environmentalists fear could lead Congress to gut laws that have sharply curbed the loss of critical wetlands.

"It's really unfair," said Brian Odden, a farmer from Kingsbury County. "It's not just a handful of farmers. . . . The whole damn county is scared."

The Agriculture Department threatened to fine him as much as $500,000 for allegedly damaging a slough that borders his farm, he said. It was one of 20 possible wetlands violations USDA investigated in the county last year.

"There's a growing frustration" among farmers, said North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer. "They say we're willing to have wetlands . . . but when you continue to oppress us for dumb things that eventually takes its toll."

Rep. David Minge (D-Minn.) said his staff spends more time fielding constituent complaints about wetlands regulation than about Social Security.

Most of the farmers' complaints stem from a 10-year-old law known as "Swampbuster." Growers accused of disturbing wetlands can be forced to forfeit their government crop subsidies.

It was an unsettling policy reversal for farmers--the government had once subsidized the draining of wetlands--but it had a dramatic impact. In the early 1980s, the nation was annually losing 160,000 acres of wetlands to farming. Now the loss is down to 31,000 acres a year.

A wetland can be anything from the large swamps in the Southeast to the small, often dry, depressions called "prairie potholes" that dot the northern Plains. Wetlands provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife, control flooding and recharge underground water supplies.

Farmers hope to weaken the Swampbuster law by tightening the definition of a wetland and allowing more exemptions or lighter penalties for farmers who disturb wetlands unintentionally.

The farm lobby also is a major force behind a House-passed bill, part of the Republican "contract with America," that would require the government to compensate landowners for regulations that devalue their property. In addition, growers are seeking broader agricultural exemptions from the Clean Water Act's wetlands restrictions.

Environmentalists say the Swampbuster law is already too weak and seldom enforced, and they contend that only a small number of farmers have trouble with it.

USDA employees, in fact, say farmers often are at fault for failing to talk to them before plowing along or through a possible wetland.

"Any sudden reversal of direction is difficult. We all know of speeders who hate speeding limits and the police who enforce them," said Peter A. A. Berle, president of the National Audubon Society.

But the Clinton Administration, under pressure from Congress, is more sympathetic.

In early April, Agriculture Department officials announced a moratorium on the mapping of new wetlands. They told a House Agriculture subcommittee they would support changes to make the Swampbuster program "more fair, flexible and able to adapt to various situations encountered from farm to farm."

The main complaint of farmers is "our lack of flexibility in working with them," said Thomas Hebert, deputy undersecretary for natural resources at USDA.

Farmers are especially upset in Kingsbury County, officials say, because a series of wet years has left farmland there inundated by expanding sloughs and lakes.

Odden was cited for digging a ditch to replace the natural spillway that drains the slough bordering his land. His case is on appeal. USDA officials say his fine may be as low as $750, but the case has left him bitter.

His family has farmed since the turn of the century about 10 miles from DeSmet, the town where "Little House on the Prairie" author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family settled in the 1800s.

"Why should I ask my sons and daughters to come back and run our business with all the rules and regulations that threaten us . . . on every turn?" Odden asked.

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