Snake River ranchers dispute government land use plan

Mar 8, 2013

For ranchers along the lower Snake River corridor in eastern Washington, neighboring with government and corporate landowners has long been a part of daily life. County roads, railroads, and recreation areas all jostle for space along the busy river corridor while ranchers own the steep hillsides and canyons above, which are used primarily as fall and winter range for their herds. Among the public and corporate owners along the river bottom, the largest single landholder is the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the entity responsible for constructing and managing the numerous dams between Idaho and the mouth of the Columbia River.

According to area ranchers, while interactions between themselves and the Corps have not always been congenial, a working relationship has existed for the past four decades that allowed both parties to maintain their respective businesses. Actions by the Corps in recent years, however, have signaled a change in that relationship, reopening old wounds, and leaving ranchers concerned for the future of their operations.

The current dispute centers on level tracts of land along the river’s edge, owned by the Corps, but used by the ranchers as winter feeding ground. During the construction of the dams, beginning in the late 1960s, the Corps condemned private property along the river via eminent domain. At the time, the Corps claimed the land from the ranchers for use as ‘freeboard,’ or a flood plain in case of major flooding, as well as for various quarry sites to provide rock for construction. According to the ranchers, the Corps at the time allowed them to continue using this freeboard land for winter feeding. Though no written records of these agreements have been located, the practice continued unchallenged for the next 40 years.

During those four decades, Corps policies changed. A 1975 agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added wildlife habitat to the Corps’ lists of priorities. Thousands of acres were purchased to mitigate the damages caused by dam construction, making the Corps one of the largest government landowners in the region. In the Walla Walla District alone, which extends from Dworshak Reservoir in northern Idaho to Umatilla, OR, the Corps owns 107,000 square miles of land. Regulations enacted in 1979 also made it a violation of state law to allow livestock to ‘encroach’ on Corps property.

This policy, however, was not enforced on the lower Snake River. Corps property fences were placed along the railroad and highway at the river’s edge, while Corps and private properties remained contiguous, a move that the ranchers pointed to as a further implication that their actions were permissible by the Corps. Beginning in 2012, however, several ranchers began receiving letters from the Corps ordering them to remove their cattle and fence the property line at their own expense. The letters also threatened that failure to comply would result in impoundment of livestock and personal property found on Corps ground.

The letters were greeted with incredulity by the ranchers, who, despite various lesser disputes with the Corps in the past, felt that they had been operating according to a long-standing agreement. “We don’t deny we’re on their land,” says one rancher, “but it’s been this way for 40 years.”

The length of time involved, according to Corps spokeswoman Gina Baltrusch, does not alter the Corps’ stance classifying the ranchers as trespassers on government property. “The district acknowledges instances of a lack of encroachment policy enforcement in the past because of unavailable resources and/or funding,” she said. “Inaction in the past, however, shall not provide a basis to deviate from appropriate enforcement and/or resolution actions in the future.” According to Baltrusch, the Corps cannot verify that an agreement was ever struck between themselves and the neighboring ranchers. Nor, she said, is livestock use likely to be permitted by them in the future. “Unlike BLM, we don’t have grazing as a mission. Flood risk reduction, navigation, hydropower, management for fish and wildlife benefit, and recreation, those are our priorities,” she said. “Areas like this are typically what we would categorize as secondary recreation areas. Cattle roaming about is not a complementary activity to wildlife development or people walking through.”

Baltrusch also indicated that the Corps had attempted to work with the ranchers, allowing them to keep their cattle on site until the end of April if they would agree to vacate permanently following that date. For the ranchers, however, the problem is not this winter, but next winter and those that come after. According to rancher Joe Eaton, for most ranchers along the corridor, the Corps ground at the bottom represents the only level acreage suitable for feeding livestock during the winter. For them, losing the use of Corps property would preclude the use of their entire winter pasture. “We were told initially that we could use that ground, and that’s what we did for 40 some years,” he says. “Without it, it makes half our ranch useless.”

Despite Corps assurances that they are seeking resolution, several ranchers indicate that they have been dealt with harshly by Corps personnel in recent months. According to Eaton, a portable corral, feeders and salt licks, which had been in place many years, were pulled out by the Corps and locked away in an impound yard. “They had no right to come out there and confiscate our equipment,” he says. Elsewhere along the river, a survey by the Corps indicated that grain bins and other structures belonging to rancher Walter Riley actually sat on Corps property. Riley was duly informed that the structures would have to go. Riley, however, remembers the original eminent domain takings by the Corps in the 1960s. “They backed up the original line because of those structures; they were already there,” he says.

Other ranchers point out that private rights to stock water and other easements are not being addressed in the Corps’ new demands. They also point out that wildlife habitat is not a feasible management goal for the Corps land without the adjacent private property working in concert. While the Corps owns a lot of acres, they say, they are arranged in narrow strips along the river, in places as little as 10 feet wide, making management as a separate entity impractical. Additionally, they indicate, much of it is abandoned rock quarries and other highly disturbed areas that, while a suitable feed ground, are unlikely to ever support a significant wildlife population.

The Corps’ stated lack of funding for natural resource goals is also concerning to the ranchers, who worry that the river bottom land will instead become a reservoir for noxious weeds and a potential fire hazard. “There’s no sense for the Corps to own that ground anymore; they ought to just give it back to the ranchers they took it from,” says Eaton. “They’ve got enough acres, and they can’t manage what they have.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent