Wetlands designation doesn’t please all

Shannon Marvel smarvel@aberdeennews.com
Farm Forum

Corrections: Kelly Olson, the assistant state conservationist for compliance with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, provided quotes and informationin this story.The quotes were misattributed toCollette Kessler,a state public affairs officer with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Also, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by a Miner County couple who were fight a USDA wetlands designation. The court was listed incorrectly in this story.

We regret the errors.

The process in which the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service makes a wetland determination on farmland in the state has been met with mixed reviews by state landowners.

Landowners wanting to install drainage tile or ditches on their farmland must wait until the land goes through a wetlands determination process.

A farmer who converts designated wetlands into arable farmland will not be allowed to participate in programs and benefits, according to David Ganje, an environmental attorney.

The federal designation is part of the Food Security Act of 1985.

Most of the state’s wetlands are located in the prairie pothole region. There are an estimated 1.7 million acres of wetland in the state.

On Jan. 9, the state Supreme Court ruled to deny a petition by a Miner County farm couple who were fighting a USDA wetlands designation.

The couple argued that the designation was determined by comparing the land in question with land 30 miles away that had already been designated as wetlands.

According to Collette Kessler, a state public affairs officer with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the ruling does not affect the wetland certification process.

“This couple went through a long process to get to that point, so none of the processes or appeals have changed. We have a staff of about 20 people that are dedicated to do wetland certifications at the request of the producer,” Kessler said.

Kessler said the definition of a wetland goes back to 1985 and the determination is based off of 30 years of land records.

“We look at only the normal years of precipitation, so those big precipitation years don’t count against you,” she added.

Making a determination

Three criteria determine a wetland — the type of vegetation, soil and hydrology.

The length of time it takes specialists to complete the process is limited to the time of year and complexity of an individual tract.

“You don’t want to wait until last minute to ask for a determination if someone is thinking about doing some drainage work. They should ask for one if they anticipate one,” Kessler said.

Roger Rix farms land near Groton.

Rix and many other area farmers publicly criticized the wetlands determination process during a landowner meeting in 2014.

Farmers brought up concerns about the backlog of wetland determination requests and limited number of available USDA specialists.

Private consultants were hired by many farmers, who said the final mapping used in the final wetlands determination by the Natural Resources Conservation was inconsistent with the private consulates’ mapping.

Since that meeting, Rix said the process has made improvements.

“I think the meeting we had in Aberdeen helped move the needle more in the producers’ direction. Not necessarily liberalizing what the rules are, but using more common sense in their determinations,” Rix said of the USDA process.

Rix may not agree with how the process is handled entirely, but he has accepted the determinations that have been made on his land.

“We went through the process of having our farmland go through most of the wetland determinations. We’ve been somewhat satisfied so far — I wouldn’t say overjoyed. The process has been pretty straightforward and somewhat acceptable. But we hired our own scientists to make his own determinations,” Rix said.

Rix is not so sure other farmers have had as much luck as he did during their wetland determination process experience.

“We’ve had that process gone through and what we’ve had so far has been acceptable. But I think it sometimes depends on each producer, where they’ve started the process and who they are working with. I know it’s been pretty difficult over time. It seems that there are different matters of opinion as to what the process entails,” Rix said.

Follow @smarvel_AAN on Twitter.

Farm Forum graphic by Cody Gustafson