ICA tackles environmental lawsuits

Dec 4, 2009
ICA tackles environmental lawsuits

Whether environmental groups are exploiting the Equal Access to Justice Act to get federal subsidies of their lawsuits against ranchers grazing livestock on public lands was addressed at the Idaho Cattle Association’s (ICA) recent annual convention and trade show in Sun Valley, ID.

The act provides for an award of reasonable attorney fees and expenses to eligible prevailing parties in adjudications against federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service. Litigants are considered prevailing parties when they succeed on significant issues of litigation that achieve benefits that they seek.

In other words, according to ICA Executive Vice President Tom McDonnell, the act “allows non-profits to sue and get legal funds back.”

The livestock industry is finding that environmental groups have secured about $1.4 billion under the act, hiring banks of attorneys who get paid as much as $650 an hour, McDonnell said. “Now, that’s a little greedy.”

It’s been estimated that environmentalists have pulled in more than $1 million under the act just in Idaho, he said, citing EarthJustice as an organization that has abused the act via a legal defense fund.

“So, we get sued using government money, but we have to hire a lawyer. We’re not eligible,” McDonnell said. “We’re not eligible to get money back. We pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. They get a grant from the government ... We still don’t have a handle on just how big it is.”

In some cases, judges seal the case so it cannot be determined how much the environmental groups pay in attorney fees. “How can you seal for an environmental group that receives taxpayer money?” McDonnell asked. “We don’t think we’ve touched even the tip of the iceberg yet.”

Idaho U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking that the issue be investigated. Idaho’s congressional delegation also signed a letter with the

Western Caucus asking for action.

“It was the largest convention and trade show in over a decade,” McDonnell said, noting attendance ranged between 200 and 300 at the Nov. 16-18 “Saving Our Legacy” conference.

He credited the high attendance to the scheduled issues and speakers, including former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, who was honored at a President’s Banquet; Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, keynote speaker; and Bruce Vincent, a motivational speaker and third generation logger from Libby, MT.

Craig spoke about natural resource issues in Washington. Vincent’s topic was “With Vision, There is Hope.” He shared insight into how those who make their living off the land continue to be the original, true environmentalists.

A cattle industry economic session took a cautiously optimistic outlook. “As an industry, we’re looking at the demand for meat protein doubling the next 40 years. That’s quite a challenge to meet,” McDonnell said.

“We hope to turn the corner the next year, but there’s lots dependent on the American economy. We have to look at what this Congress and administration are doing with the economy. If we’re hit with a higher level of taxes and other taxes, that’s going to be a huge impact on us.”

Other convention topics included: Holding onto assets; Trichomoniasis testing; Regulatory and legislative issues; A review of Environmental Protection Agency issues affecting cattlemen; Business sessions for the Federal and State Lands Committee, Private Lands and Environment Committee, and Wildlife Committee; Building demand for beef in Idaho, across the nation and around the globe; Idaho animal cruelty legislation; Idaho State Department of Agriculture update; Business session for Marketing Committee and Cattle Health and Well Being Committee; The Importance of Nutrition and Reproductive Efficiency in Today’s Economic Climate.

“We had to roll up our sleeves and work a little bit,” McDonnell said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent