Landowners file suit against Western Watersheds Project
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. Regardless whether private property is the backyard in town or rangeland in the country, trespassing is illegal.
Fifteen landowners in Fremont County and Lincoln County have filed a civil trespass lawsuit in Wyoming District Court, Fremont County, against Western Watersheds Project, Inc. (WWP) and Jonathan Ratner, WWP director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and John Does one through 10 with the Western Watersheds Project, Inc. for intentionally and without landowner permission trespassing and entering private property.
The Plaintiffs in the case are seeking a permanent injunction to stop further unauthorized trespass against their private property. The Plaintiffs are also seeking recovery of actual, nominal and punitive damages.
Private property rights
According to Western Watersheds Project, Inc.’s website, “Policy Memo Number 2” is “To Do: Get all cows and sheep off public lands ASAP!” To advance the agenda of WWP, the Defendants were willing to break laws by illegally trespassing on private property.
“This case is really about the landowner’s ability to protect their private property rights,” says Karen Budd-Falen, an attorney representing the landowners. “Landowners should have the ability to decide who does or does not trespass on their private property.”
“In many areas in Wyoming, private land is interspersed with federal lands. We (Wyoming private landowners) have typically allowed public access through our private lands,” says Anjie McConnell with Frank Ranches. “Allowing public access is a property owner’s choice.”
“For instance, if we are not comfortable allowing someone into our home, we are able to tell them ‘no’ and close the door,” she explains. “Landowners have the same rights and the ability to say ‘no’ to groups and individuals who knowingly trespass, including those trying to advance an agenda against multiple-use of federal lands.”
Budd-Falen adds that WWP, in some cases, went directly against landowners who did not grant them access to lands.
Incidence of trespass
Trespasses by WWP occurred while collecting and submitting water quality samples to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Trespasses also occurred while collecting range monitoring data.
According to the lawsuit, in June 2005 and May 2010, Ratner, on behalf of WWP, submitted to the DEQ a “Sampling and Analysis Plan” (SAP) for the collection of water quality data.
“The signed 2005 SAP and the 2010 SAP affirmatively state that all water quality monitoring will be in compliance with Wyoming’s Credible Data Act of 1999,” wrote Budd-Falen. “Additionally, the SAP’s state the sampling sites will be on public lands with legal public access.”
Reason for suit
According to the complaint, when the latitude and longitude coordinates for the individual water quality site locations provided by Defendants were placed on a land ownership map, circumstantial evidence shows the Defendants trespassed upon the Plaintiff’s private property.
“Additionally, two of the water monitoring site locations were illegally located on the private lands belonging to two of the Plaintiffs,” she continues.
“Because the Defendants were required to use GPS equipment to note the locations of their water quality monitoring sites, Defendants knew or should have known that they were trespassing on private property to access these sites,” Budd-Falen explains. “Landowners are not comfortable having an extreme biased organization, that has not demonstrated the professional qualifications to collect credible data, trespassing their lands.”
State lands offenses
Additionally, the Defendant trespassed on state lands and was notified on April 1, 2014 by the director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments that collection of monitoring data on Wyoming state trust lands was prohibited by law and that any continued unauthorized data collections may constitute trespassing.
“It is of great concern to us when an individual or an organization habitually trespasses on our private lands,” McConnell concludes. “It should also be of great concern to all people who own, use and enjoy lands and value open spaces in Wyoming.”
In moving forward with the lawsuit, after Ratner is served with the complaint, he and Western Watersheds Project have 20 days to respond.
“We have asked for a jury trial because we think Wyoming citizens ought to be involved in this issue,” says Budd-Falen. “We are filing the case in Lander, and that is where the trial will be held.”
Once in court, Budd-Falen notes that the judge must first determine whether Ratner has trespassed under Wyoming statutes.
“We are claiming trespass, and we need a judge to say that,” she continued. “We have also asked for damages that he has caused.”
Finally, Budd-Falen remarks that they are also asking for punitive damages.
Punitive damages are being sought because of the continued and habitual trespass by the Defendants.
“Punitive damages are damages a jury can award as a punishment for someone who so flagrantly disobeys the law,” she explains.
The complaint states, “Punitive damages are proper where there has been an aggravated disregard of another’s rights and where the imposition of punitive damages will tend to prevent this type of violation in the future. In this case, Defendants willfully and wantonly acted, in reckless disregard for the consequences, and in complete and utter disregard for Plaintiffs’ property rights.”
Accessing land without permission is against the law and a violation of the basic rights of property owners. 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.
Watch the Roundup for updates on this case.