Western Watershed Project: We Can’t Afford Attorney FeesWritten by Ken Hamilton
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President
Landowners sometimes find themselves in disagreement with those who wander through private lands. In recent years, this disagreement has taken on a whole new meaning with individuals working for entities gathering data with remote sensing or onsite investigations that are trespassing without getting permission with hopes of using that data for their own purposes.
The United States and Wyoming Constitutions hold the ownership and protection of private property, including the right to exclude third parties, in the highest regard. This is a good thing. Regardless of whether your private property is your backyard in town or rangeland in the country, trespassing is illegal.
In June 2014, 15 landowners in Fremont and Lincoln Counties filed a civil trespass lawsuit against Western Watersheds Project (WWP), Jonathan Ratner, WWP Director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and John Does one through10 with WWP, Inc. for intentionally and without landowner permission trespassing and entering private property. For some of these ranchers, this wasn’t a one-time occurrence but has happened numerous times.
In a July response filed by Western Watersheds Project, the group alleges the case is an attempt to silence the group, but according to some of the landowners’ attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, this lawsuit is strictly about trespass. Dan Frank who serves as legal counsel for Frank Ranches, Inc. in the trespass case stated that Mr. Ratner continued to trespass after being told he could not cross private lands to reach federal lands. Why would WWP continue to do this?
WWP’s hatred towards the ranching industry is well known and their website shows their main goal is to remove livestock from federal lands. So when a landowner sees someone from WWP on their land, it is obvious they are not there to provide helpful grazing advice.
WWP tries to throw up a smoke screen by alleging they do their water quality monitoring work for the “Public Interest.” There is no one who cares more than landowners about natural resources. In fact a visit to the Wyoming Association of Conservation District’s website shows several video examples of landowners partnering with their local conservation district to improve the land and water in their area. These folks are spending their money on the ground, not hiring attorneys and filing lawsuits, which is the modus operandi of Western Watersheds Project. Landowners do prefer to work with trained, qualified and un-biased professionals to monitor the rangeland and water quality. Landowners are not comfortable having an extreme, biased organization that has not demonstrated the professional qualifications to collect credible data trespassing on their lands.
As mentioned before, according to their website, Western Watersheds Project’s agenda is to get all cows and sheep off of public lands. To advance the agenda of WWP, they were willing to break laws by illegally trespassing on private property. Trespasses by WWP occurred while collecting water quality samples. Trespasses also occurred while collecting range monitoring data. Some of the data collection was even on private lands.
The irony to all this is that in their response, Western Watersheds Project alleges the legal cost is too much for them so pro bono representation is necessary for their organization. According to their website, they have four staff members who are attorneys. They also frequently receive money from the federal government for filing lawsuits. Indeed, according to research done by Karen Budd-Falen, as of January 2011, WWP had been paid attorney fees totaling over $2.3 million. That amount was four years ago, so it doesn’t include the last four years of lawsuits. This is money that you and I pay in taxes. WWP has always been a very litigious group and has been receiving money from taxpayers for years. To allege poverty is just another smoke screen they are trying to hide behind just like their allegations trying to justify their trespass activities.
Trespassing on private land without permission is against the law. For this reason, the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit have the support of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Wool Growers Association.