Mediation offers benefits, finds an agreeable solution for all parties
Riverton – The 29th Annual Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days took place in Riverton on Jan. 30-31. Over 100 people attended the event sponsored by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service.
Larry Bentley, Eastern Wyoming program coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, presented on the Wyoming Agricultural and Natural Resources Mediation Program.
Benefits of mediation
The program is available to producers, government agencies, agriculture business owners and natural resource managers to resolve disputes in a voluntary, confidential, low-cost and timesaving way.
“I begin by having each disputing party tell their story,” Bentley explained. “We follow common courtesy rules, set expectations for the mediation process, and, if an agreement is not reached, we decide what the consequences will be.”
“Mediation is important to begin early on – don’t wait until the fight is heated, as it is less likely to resolve the issue,” said Bentley. “Usually a request for mediation does not prevent you from trying other processes in the appeal, if mediation is not successful.”
The purpose of mediation is to reach a point where both parties are happy with what has been decided upon.
There are 50 trained mediators throughout the state that specialize in different areas. Bentley specializes in range mediation for grazing permits and easement/access issues.
Mediation as a tool
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies are required to provide the opportunity to request mediation as part of the agency’s appeal process. It is important to pay attention to the timelines laid out in the adverse decision letters regarding credit issues, denial of disaster payments or grazing on public lands. If mediation is not requested during the required time period, it is hard to obtain satisfactory agreement for both sides.
“Unlike an arbitrator’s ruling, the decision made in mediation will be mutually agreed upon,” Bentley said. “Mediation allows you to discuss the circumstances and ways to prevent the conflict from happening again.
“Mediation is a great tool if you have a problem with your BLM Range Conservationist or U.S. Forest Service (USFS) District Ranger with trespassing or reduced AUMs (Animal Unit Months),” explained Bentley. “The USFS is required to include a time period for mediation as part of the adverse decision process. The BLM is not, but they are obliged to participate if you request it.”
Technical review and grazing
With grazing permit issues, a Technical Review Team (TRT) can assist permittees and the land agencies in evaluating the grazing allotment and in reaching agreement on management decisions. Members of the TRT must specialize in range management and have a broad background in public land issues. If the dispute involves an endangered species, like sage grouse, the TRT might need to involve a Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist.
“TRTs are an effective way to bring a science-based approach to resource disputes and the management of public lands,” Bentley said. “The TRT members evaluate the allotment and compile a peer-reviewed document on the conditions of the range. As a third party monitoring report, the TRT’s evaluation will stand up to scrutiny if the dispute goes to court.
“Using a TRT within mediation brings the health of the land back into focus with scientific data and often results in suggested solutions that neither party had thought of before. Quite often the BLM or USFS will stand by their decision until other information is available.”
While mediation and the TRT review is extremely helpful in grazing disputes, most often they do not result in a total reversal of reduced AUMs. The process has successfully pushed a 50 percent cut to a 35 percent reduction, though.
Once AUMs are deferred, you have to prove that the forage is there to have the AUMs returned. Along the Tongue River, 13 permittees were successful in gaining AUMs back on their USFS allotment through monitoring and documentation of grazing practices by a TRT.
“It is a lot better to settle differences out in the field through hard data rather in the court system where there are no winners,” Bentley said.
The Wyoming Agricultural and Natural Resources Mediation program fosters partnerships between private landowners and public land managers. The process creates clear expectations and promotes communication between both parties to move forward with managing Wyoming’s natural resources, wildlife and range.
Most mediation sessions take place within a few weeks of submitting the request. The program is low-cost, and if you are mediating with an USDA agency, there is no charge for the process.
To learn more about the Wyoming Agricultural and Natural Resources Mediation Program, visit wyagric.stat.wy.us/division/nrp/mediation-program.