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Big Meadows Grazing Ass'n v. United States ex. rel. Veneman
344 F.3d 940 (9th Cir. 2003)

Big Meadows Grazing Association (Association) sued the United States claiming it violated the statutes governing the Wetlands Reserve Program[1] by implementing a wetlands easement conservation plan on the Association's property without obtaining the Association's consent. The Ninth Circuit, affirming the district court, granted summary judgment in favor of the government.

As part of its Wetlands Reserve Program, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchased a conservation easement from the Association to "restore, manage, maintain and enhance"[2] 1,812 acres of wetlands on the Association's property in Flathead County, Montana. The Association claimed, at the time of the transaction, the government planned to implement a wetlands conservation program costing about $80,000. By 2001, the USDA's plan included building a dam and was projected to cost more than $486,000. The Association refused to consent to the plan, claiming it was radically different from the plan to which it agreed when it sold the easement. In November, 2001, USDA informed the Association that its consent was not necessary and began implementing the plan. The Association filed this suit in response.

Section 3837a(a) of U.S.C. Title 16 requires the government to enter into an agreement with a landowner before implementing a wetlands conservation plan.[3] The Association asserts that this provision requires the government to obtain the landowner's consent to a specific conservation plan before implementing it. The Ninth Circuit held that the statutory language required only consent to some kind of conservation plan, not consent to the specific terms of a particular conservation plan. The court also pointed out that the Association's easement transferred to the United States all rights to the property except "record title, the right of quiet enjoyment, the right to prevent trespass and control public access, the right to undeveloped recreational uses, and the right to subsurface resources."[4] These terms do not allow the Association the right to veto a conservation plan. The court found support for its conclusions in 16 U.S.C. section 3837a(c), which gives the landowner no role in developing the conservation plan to be implemented on his or her property, and 16 U.S.C. section 3837a(b), which requires the landowner to provide for a conservation plan that "includes such additional provisions as the Secretary determines are desirable."[5] The Association also argued that 16 U.S.C. section 3837a(a) and (b) require that a landowner's agreement to a conservation plan take place in a separate transaction from his or her agreement to an easement. The court determined that nothing in these provisions prohibits a conservation plan from being contained in the easement such that agreement to the easement is agreement to the conservation plan.

The court found the regulations implementing the Wetlands Reserve Program to be consistent with its ruling. Like the statute, the regulations require only that the landowner consent to some conservation plan, not a specific conservation plan.[6] The references in the regulations to "associated contract[s]" and "related agreement[s],"[7] suggest that separate agreements may exist but do not require them.

The Association's final argument was that USDA's Wetlands Reserve Program Manual requires the landowner's consent to a conservation plan. The court refused to review this allegation because the Manual, as an agency interpretive statement, is not binding or legally enforceable.

Thus, after looking at the statutory and regulatory language, the Ninth Circuit found that the government acted lawfully in implementing its wetlands conservation plan, and upheld the district court's decision to grant summary judgment for the government.



[1] 16 U.S.C. § 3837(a)(2000).

[2] Big Meadows Grazing Ass'n v. United States ex rel. Veneman, 344 F.3d 940, 942 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation omitted).

[3] 16 U.S.C. § 3837a(a) (2000) states, "To be eligible to place land into the wetland reserve under this subpart, the owner of such land shall enter into an agreement with the Secretary--(1) to grant an easement on such land to the Secretary; [and] (2) to implement a wetland easement conservation plan as provided for in this section."

[4] Big Meadows Grazing Ass'n, 344 F.3d at 943.

[5] 16 U.S.C. § 3837a(b) (2000).

[6] 7 C.F.R. § 1467.4(a) (2003) ("To participate in WRP, a landowner will agree to the implementation of a Wetlands Reserve Plan of Operations (WRPO)."); id. § 1467.12(b) ("Modifications to the WRPO which are substantial and affect provisions of the easement will require agreement from the landowner and require execution of an amended easement.").

[7] Id. § 1467.10(d) ("The landowner shall: (1) Comply with the terms of the easement, (2) Comply with all terms and conditions of any associated contract [and] (3) Agree to the long-term restoration, protection, enhancement, maintenance, and management of the easement in accordance with the terms of the easement and related agreements"); id. § 1467.12(b) ("Modifications to the WRPO which are substantial and affect provisions of the easement will require agreement from the landowner and require execution of an amended easement.").

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