WWP settles with landowners in trespass caseWritten by Saige Albert
Lander - This week, plaintiffs released that documents were filed in a settlement from the June 2014 lawsuit against Western Watersheds Project (WWP).
"WWP has agreed to a permanent injunction against trespassing on any of the plaintiffs' lands," says Dan Frank, attorney at Frank Law Office, PC. "We've identified over 54, 000 acres that are covered."
The settlement also includes provisions for fines for future trespass and provision for required training.
Western Watershed Projects has trespassed on these private lands over 60 times since 2005.
"The landowners have contributed greatly to outdoor recreation by leaving thousands of acres of privately owned lands, in some cases interspersed with public lands, open to the public for hunting, fishing and recreation. This settlement will encourage these landowners to keep lands open for continued recreation use," a press release from the plaintiffs reads. "The Landowners were also concerned with monitoring for water quality and other natural resources on their land by individuals who have no formal training or education to conduct such monitoring and fail to abide by standard operating procedures such as the Department of Environmental Quality's water quality monitoring requirements and not no authorization to access private property.
Inside the case
Frank Ranches, Inc. was represented by Frank. Karen Budd-Falen represented the remaining 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
"Frank Ranches was involved in this lawsuit because Jonathan Ratner of WWP was taking data and crossing our private lands to reach federal land," Frank explains. "We told him that he could not access our land anymore and he continued to trespass."
"Ratner responded with an email stating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had an easement, but they couldn't find it.
"At that point, Frank Ranches felt that if an easement couldn't be produced that one did not exist, and to stop the trespassing from continuing, we decided we were going to bring a lawsuit," Frank says. "At that point, I conferred with Karen Budd- Falen to see if she had clients that had similar issues."
He adds, "We joined forces to bring one large action, rather than as separate landowners bringing separate court actions."
An initial motion to dismiss the lawsuit by WWP was denied by Judge Norman Young a year ago. Cross motions for summary judgement were made.
Young also granted a motion to prevent plaintiffs from gaining access to financial documents could be accessed.
"After he said that punitive damages would be difficult and highly unlikely, we went to mediation," Frank says. "We achieved everything we wanted to from the lawsuit, which includes the permanent injunction and enforcement mechanisms within the agreement."
The settlement agreement includes two important point.
First, WWP agreed that they would no longer trespass on all of the lands of those 15 landowners included in the suit where legal public access did not exist.
"We also implemented an enforcement mechanism," Frank says. "If there are trespasses, we'll settle them informally, but if they are contested, we'll go back to court."
The enforcement provisions provide that the first time WWP trespasses, they will be fined $2,500. For any subsequent trespass, a $5,000 fine will be imposed.
For example, if WWP or any representative of WWP trespasses on three parcels belonging to three different landowners, they would be fined $2,500 for each parcel the first time, and $5,000 for each trespass after that date.
"These enforcement provisions provide a stiff penalty," Frank comments.
Training and notice
I addition, the settlement agreement also provides that WWP will provide training to their employees, agents and volunteers.
"They also stipulate and agreed to where there are public easements and private easements. It's all spelled out and copies have been provided to WWP," he says.
They are prohibited from entering airspace at an altitude of 500 feet over the landowners by the 15 plaintiffs in the suit.
"They also must provide written notice of data collected from grazing allotments of the plaintiffs that is submitted to any agency by Oct. 31 of each year," says Frank. "The notice small identify the grazing allotment, the organization collecting the data and the entities the data was provided to."
The notice allows landowners to verify that data was collected without trespass.
If landowners believe trespass has occurred, they have to provide notice to WWP within 60 days for observed trespass or one year for implied trespass. WWP then has 30 days to respond and pay fines.
Implications for ag
"It is portrayed that evil ranchers are trying to hide something," Frank says. "That isn't the case at all. Landowners have the right to know and make decisions of whether they want people on their land."
Additionally, Shaun Sims, president of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD), says, "It's important that those people collecting resource data are adequately trained, qualified and unbiased."
He continues, "Landowners are working cooperatively with local conservation districts and other partners in the state to collect data. It's not about landowners hiding anything. It's that we want to make sure that data is collected properly."
Sims adds that conservation district employees who collect data, for example, are required to participate in training courses and take certification exams. They are then subject to infield audits.
"Organizations like WWP are collecting data without training using homemade equipment and incubators," he says. "That causes a bunch of problems because they're not qualified and they're not using proper equipment."
Positive steps forward
A settlement in this case is positive for both landowners and the greater ag community, Sims comments.
"It goes beyond what was gathered here or these specific instances of trespass." Sims emphasizes. "Landowners have a right to decide whether they want other people on or moving across their ground, and we have the right to also deny that access. This lawsuit brought that to light."
He continues, It's also bigger that WWP. This is about enforcing private property rights and making sure that resource data is collected properly."
"These landowners achieved everything we hoped for," Franks says, "and now, we also have the data trespass statutes to further protect other landowners in the future."