Friday, August 16, 2019
Court Decision Illustrates USDA’s Swampbuster “Incompetence”
The conservation-compliance provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill introduced the concept of “swampbuster.” Swampbuster was introduced into the Congress in January of 1985 at the urging of the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society. It was originally presented as only impacting truly aquatic areas and allowing drainage to continue where substantial investments had been made. Thus, there was virtually no opposition to Swampbuster.
But, the “dirt is in the details” as it is often said. Just how does the USDA determine if a tract of farmland contain a wet area that is subject to regulation? That’s a question of key importance to farmers. That process was also the core of a recent court opinion, in which the court painted a rather bleak and embarrassing picture of the USDA bureaucrats.
Swampbuster and the USDA’s process for determining land subject to the Swampbuster rules – that’s the topic of today’s post.
The legislation charged the soil conservation service (SCS) with creating an official wetland inventory with a particular tract being classified as a wetland if it had (1) the presence of hydric soil; (2) wetland hydrology (soil inundation for at least seven days or saturated for at least 14 days during the growing season); and (3) the prevalence of hydrophytic plants under undisturbed conditions. In other words, to be a wetland, a tract must have hydric soils, hydrophytic vegetation and wetland hydrology. The presence of hydrophytic vegetation, by itself, is insufficient to meet the wetland hydrology requirement and the statute clearly requires the presence of all three characteristics. B&D Land & Livestock Co. v. Schafer, 584 F. Supp. 2d 1182 (N.D. Iowa 2008).
Under the June 1986 interim rules, wetland was assumed to be truly wet ground that had never been farmed. In addition, “obligation of funds” (such as assessments paid to drainage districts) qualified as commenced conversions, and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had no involvement in ASCS or SCS decisions. In September of 1986, a proposal to exempt from Swampbuster all lands within drainage districts was approved by the chiefs of the ASCS, SCS, FmHA, FCIC and the Secretary of Agriculture. However, the USDA proposal failed in the face of strong opposition from the FWS and the EPA.
The final Swampbuster rules were issued in 1987 and greatly differed from the interim rules. The final Swampbuster rules eliminated the right to claim prior investment as a commenced conversion. Added were farmed wetlands, abandoned cropland, active pursuit requirements, FWS concurrence, a complicated “commenced determination” application procedure, and special treatment for prairie potholes. Under the “commenced conversion” rules, an individual producer or a drainage district is exempt from Swampbuster restrictions if drainage work began before December 23, 1985 (the effective date of the 1985 Farm Bill). If the drainage work was not completed by December 23, 1985, a request could be made of the ASCS on or before September 19, 1988, to make a commencement determination. Drainage districts must satisfy several requirements under the “commenced conversion” rules. A project drainage plan setting forth planned drainage must be officially adopted. In addition, the district must have begun installation of drainage measures or legally committed substantial funds toward the conversion by contracting for installation or supplies.
The final rules defined “farmed wetlands” as playa, potholes, and other seasonally flooded wetlands that were manipulated before December 23, 1985, but still exhibited wetland characteristics. Drains affecting these areas can be maintained, but the scope and effect of the original drainage system cannot be exceeded. 7 C.F.R. § 12.33(b). Prior converted wetlands can be farmed, but they revert to protected status once abandoned. Abandonment occurs after five years of inactivity and can happen in one year if there is intent to abandon. A prior converted wetland is a wetland that was totally drained before December 23, 1985. Under 16 U.S.C. §3801(a)(6), a “converted wetland” is defined as a wetland that is manipulated for the purpose or with the effect of making the production of an agricultural commodity possible if such production would not have been possible but for such action. See, e.g., Clark v. United States Department of Agriculture, 537 F.3d 934 (8th Cir. 2008). If a wetland was drained before December 23, 1985, but wetland characteristics remain, it is a “farmed wetland” and only the original drainage can be maintained.
Identifying a Wetland – The Boucher Saga
The process that the USDA uses to determine the presence of wet areas on a farm that are subject to the Swampbuster rules (known as the “on-site” wetland identification criteria) are contained in 7 C.F.R. §12.31. The application of the rules was at issue in the most recent opinion in a case involving an Indiana farm family’s longstanding battle with the USDA.
Facts and administrative appeals. The facts of the litigation reveal that the plaintiff (and her now-deceased husband) owned the farm at issue since the early 1980s. The farmland has been continuously used for livestock and grain production for over 150 years. The tenants that farm the land participated in federal farm programs. In 1987, the plaintiffs were notified that the farm might contain wetlands due to the presence of hydric soils. This was despite a national wetland inventory that was taken in 1989 that failed to identify any wetland on the farm. In 1991, the USDA made a non-certified determination of potential wetlands, prior converted wetlands and converted wetlands on the property. In 1994, the plaintiff’s husband noticed that passersby were dumping garbage on a portion of the property. To deter the garbage-dumping, the plaintiff’s husband cleaned up the garbage, cleared brush, and removed five trees initially and four more trees several years later. The trees were upland-type trees that were unlikely to be found in wetlands, and the tree removal impacted a tiny fraction of an acre. The USDA informed the landowners that the tree removal might have triggered a wetland/Swampbuster violation and that the land had been impermissibly drained via field tile (which it had not).
Because the land at issue was farmed, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) used an offsite comparison field to compare with the tract at issue for a determination of the presence of wetland. The comparison site chosen was an unfarmed depression that was unquestionably a wetland. In 2002, an attempt was made to place the farm in the Conservation Reserve Program, which triggered a field visit by the NRCS. However, a potential wetland violation had been reported and NRCS was tasked with making a determination of whether a wet area had been converted to wetland after November 28, 1990. The landowners requested a certified wetland determination, and in late 2002 the NRCS made a “routine wetland determination” that found all three criteria for a wetland (hydric soil, hydrophytic vegetation and hydrology) were present by virtue of comparison to adjacent property because the tract in issue was being farmed. The landowners were notified in early 2003 of a preliminary technical determination that 2.8 acres were converted wetlands and 1.6 acres were wetlands. The NRCS demanded that the landowners plant 300 trees per acre on the 2.8 acres of “converted wetland.”
The landowners requested a reconsideration and a site visit. Two separate site visits were scheduled and later cancelled due to bad weather. The landowners also timely notified NRCS that they were appealing the preliminary wetland determination and requested a field visit, asserting that NRCS had made a technical error. A field visit occurred in the spring of 2003 and a written appeal was filed of the preliminary wetland determination and a review by the state conservationist was requested. The appeal claimed that the field visit was inadequate. The husband met with the State Conservationist in the fall of 2003. No site visit occurred, and a certified final wetland determination was never made. The landowners believed that the matter was resolved.
The husband died, and nine years later a new tenant submitted a “highly erodible land conservation and wetland conservation certification” to the FSA. Permission was requested from the USDA to remove an old barn and house from a field to allow farming of that ground. In late 2012, the NRCS discovered that a final wetland determination had never been made and a field visit was scheduled for January of 2013 shortly after several inches of rain melted a foot of snow on the property. At the field visit, the NRCS noted that there were puddles in several fields. The NRCS used the same comparison field that had been used in 2002, and also determined that underground drainage tile must have been present (it was not).
Based on the January 2013 field visit, the NRCS made a final technical determination that one field did not contain wetlands, another field had 1.3 acres of wetlands, another field had 0.7 acres of converted wetlands and yet another field had 1.9 acres of converted wetlands. The plaintiff (the surviving spouse) appealed the final technical determination to the USDA’s National Appeals Division (NAD). At the NAD, the plaintiff asserted that either tile had been installed before the effective date of the Swampbuster rules in late 1985 or that tiling wasn’t present (a tiling company later established that no tiling had been installed on any of the tracts); that none of the tracts showed water inundation or saturation; that none of the tracts were in a depression; and that the trees that were removed over two decades earlier were not hydrophytic, were not dispositive indicators of wetland, and that improper comparison sites were used. The NRCS claimed that the tree removal altered the hydrology of the site. The USDA-NAD affirmed the certified final technical determination. The plaintiff appealed, but the NAD Director affirmed. The plaintiff then sought judicial review.
Trial court decision. The trial court affirmed the NAD Director’s decision and granted summary judgment to the government. Boucher v. United States Department of Agriculture, No. 1:13-cv-01585-TWP-DKL, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23643 (S.D. Ind. Feb. 26, 2016). The court based its decision on the following:
- The removal of trees and vegetation had the “effect of making possible the production of an agricultural commodity” where the trees once stood and, thus, the NRCS determination was not arbitrary or capricious with respect to the converted wetland determination.
- The NRCS followed regulatory procedures found in 7 C.F.R. §12.31(b)(2)(ii) for determining wetland status on the land that was being farmed by comparing the land to comparable tracts that were not being farmed.
- Existing regulations did not require site visits during the growing season.
- “Normal circumstances” of the land does not refer to normal climate conditions but instead refers to soil and hydrologic conditions normally present without regard to the removal of vegetation.
- The ten-year timeframe between the preliminary determination and the final determination did not deprive the plaintiff of due process rights.
The appellate court reversed the trial court decision and remanded the case for entry of judgment in the plaintiff’s favor and award her “all appropriate relief.” Boucher v. United States Dep’t of Agric., No. 16-1654, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23695 (7th Cir. Aug. 8, 2019). On the comparison site issue (the USDA’s utilization of the on-site wetland identification criteria rules), the USDA claimed that 7 C.F.R. § 12.31(b)(2)(ii) allowed them to select a comparison site that was "on the same hydric soil map unit" as the subject property, rather than on whether the comparison site has the same hydrologic features as the subject tract(s). The appellate court rejected this approach as arbitrary and capricious, noting that the NRCS failed to try an "indicator-based wetland hydrology" approach or to use any of their other tools when picking a comparison site. In addition, the appellate court noted a COE manual specifies that, “[a] hydrologist may be needed to help select and carry out the proper analysis" in situations where potential lack of hydrology is an issue such as in this case. However, the NRCS did not send a hydrologist to personally examine the plaintiff’s property, claiming instead that a comparison site was not even necessary. Based on 7 C.F.R. §12.32(a)(2), the USDA claimed, the removal of woody hydrophytic vegetation from hydric soils to permit the production of an agricultural commodity is all that is needed to declare the area "converted wetland."
The appellate court concluded that this understanding of the statue was much too narrow and went against all the other applicable regulatory and statutory provisions by completely forgoing the basis of hydrology that the provisions are grounded in. Accordingly, the appellate court reasoned that because hydrology is the basis for a change in wetland determination, the removal of trees is merely a factor to determine the presence of a wetland, but is not a determining factor. In addition, the appellate court pointed out that the NRCS never indicated that the removal of trees changed the hydrology of the property during the agency appeal process – a point that the USDA ignored during the administrative appeal process. The appellate court rather poignantly stated, “Rather than grappling with this evidence, the hearing officer used transparently circular logic, asserting that the Agency experts had appropriately found hydric soils, hydrophytic vegetation, and wetland hydrology…”.
The USDA-NRCS was brutalized (rightly so) by the appellate court’s decision for its lack of candor and incompetence. Those same agency characteristics were also illustrated in the Eighth Circuit decision of Barthel v. United States Department of Agriculture, 181 F.3d 934 (8th Cir. 1999). Perhaps much of the USDA/NRCS conduct relates to the bureaucratic unilateral decision in 1987 to change the rules to include farmed wetland under the jurisdiction of Swampbuster. That decision has led to abuse of the NAD process and delays that have cost farmers untold millions. Hopefully, the clean-out of some USDA bureaucrats as a result of the new Administration that began in early 2017 will result in fewer cases like this in the future.
The Indiana story eerily similar to one now playing out in southern Iowa. “Violations” found when NRCS engaged for other assistance. Tree clearings dating back up to 15 years claimed to be violations which demand huge penalties. Phantom tile claims, imaginary ditches, ignored lateral effects, greatly altered channelized stream valley renders photo indicators invalid. Why crusade to take down a well-intentioned landowner?
Posted by: Donald Etler | Aug 16, 2019 6:03:22 PM