Washington, DC — A South Dakota farmer seeking to plant federally-subsidized stream buffers on his own land has triggered stiff local opposition and an unusual court battle, according to case files released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The fight signals deep hostility in some rural communities against the ongoing shift away from crop subsidies and towards support for sustainable agriculture.
Currently, the federal government offers financial incentives for farmers to plant trees and shrubs along streams to prevent soil erosion, create wildlife habitat and protect water quality by keeping cattle from wallowing along denuded, overgrazed banks. In 2004, Gordon Heber, a Douglas County landowner, took the federal agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, up on its offer. After securing approval from the NRCS and endorsements from the state soil conservationist and environmental organization, Heber advanced $87,000 out of his own pocket to plant trees and shrubs along two sections of the Choteau Creek on the expectation that he would be reimbursed once the project was finished. The creek is classified as an impaired waterway by state and federal environmental authorities.
As he was ready to plant, local authorities stepped in and ordered a halt to the project. Heber hired a lawyer and went to court. His case was argued last Thursday, February 9th before the state Circuit Court in Douglas County, located just above the Nebraska border. A decision is expected in five weeks. Meanwhile, both the trees and Heber’s financial future teeter in the balance.
Some residents of Douglas County are against government investment in farm conservation, contending it causes higher land prices and attracts absentee owners who buy land for recreation rather than for farming or ranching. In order to block landowners from planting federally-subsidized riparian buffers, Douglas County now requires a county zoning permit in order to plant trees.
“They say only God can make a tree but in South Dakota the local zoning board apparently has to sign off, as well,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the outcome of the Heber case will determine whether landowners can take part in federal agricultural conservation programs free from local obstructionism. “Our national drive to promote sustainable agriculture will wither on the vine if it is made subject to local veto.”
Heber’s case also creates an odd bedfellows uniting environmental and property rights advocates on the same side in favor of allowing landowners to plant trees on their own land.
Later this month, Congress begins debating the annual farm budget bill and the debate about whether to end crop subsidies altogether will be rejoined. The 2002 Farm Bill made a historic commitment to farmers and ranchers to help finance investments to improve the environmental health of their lands. Full funding for that commitment, however, has been lagging. In his proposed FY07 budget President Bush would again cut funding for an array of farming stewardship programs, including the one Gordon Heber hopes to use.