Suit won’t affect Colorado ranchers |

Suit won’t affect Colorado ranchers

Colleen Slevin
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” A federal lawsuit challenging a plan to give farmers and ranchers access to millions of acres of idle land isn’t expected to affect livestock owners in southeastern Colorado who recently won the right to graze on such property.

A hearing in the case brought by conservation groups is scheduled Thursday in Seattle. Last week Judge John Coughenour issued a temporary injunction to stop Conservation Reserve Program land nationwide from being opened under a U.S. Department of Agriculture plan.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced Friday that ranchers in six counties will be allowed immediate access to CRP land for emergency haying and grazing.

Agriculture department spokeswoman Christi Lightcap said the outcome of the Seattle case won’t affect the Colorado ranchers there because the land was opened up through an emergency order by the federal Farm Service Agency.

At issue nationally is more than 24 million acres of environmentally sensitive land that farmers and ranchers are paid to keep idle and plant grass on. The average payment in the Conservation Reserve Program last year was $50 an acre.

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In May, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced plans to open up all but the most vulnerable CRP land to farmers and ranchers once birds have finished nesting on the grasslands this summer. He said ranchers have been especially hurt by rising feed costs and less available land for grazing.

Coughenour’s ruling temporarily stopping the program from taking effect will remain in place until after he rules.

In Colorado, Lightcap said the ranchers in Baca, Bent, Kiowa, Prowers, Phillips and Yuma counties will be allowed on the land through Sept. 30 or whenever emergency conditions end.

That doesn’t appear likely any time soon.

The U.S. Drought Monitor says the southeastern corner of the state is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions. Conditions are similar just across state lines in New Mexico, the Oklahoma Pandhandle and Kansas.

According to the National Weather Service, soil moisture on Colorado’s southeastern plains is between 40 to 80 percent of normal.

Ed Jones, a rancher near Lamar, said his CRP land is not much better than the land his 100 cows are grazing on now. However, FSA officials said he’ll still have to pay $7 an acre to use his land even though he’ll still have to buy feed like alfalfa to make sure the animals get enough protein.

“If they’re going to help us, turn us loose and let us graze it. But don’t be trying to get a bunch of fees on us,” Jones said by cell phone after hauling water to his cattle on Sunday.

He said that while he’s willing to pay the $75 filing fee to use the land, he said he won’t use it for grazing if he’s charged a per acre fee.

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