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Gunn v. Department of Agric.

ELR Citation: 27 ELR 21331
Nos. 96-3995S1, 118 F.3d 1233/(8th Cir., 07/07/1997)

The court upholds the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) determination that 28.2 acres of a farmer's land are converted wetlands and therefore, cannot be farmed without the farmer losing eligibility for certain farm benefits under the Food Security Act's Swampbuster program. The court first holds that the USDA's regulations, which refine the scope of the Swampbuster program, carefully follow the statutory language and are reasonable interpretations of any statutory ambiguities with respect to "converted wetland" and "commenced." Such expert refinements are well within the purview of the USDA and do not make its determination in the farmer's case invalid. Next, the court holds that the farmer has not shown that the 1992 conversion on his land was commenced under either the statutory definition or the definition in the regulations. Any discrepancy between the two, therefore, does not change the conclusion that the farmer's wetlands do not come within the exception for previously converted wetlands.

The court then holds that part of the farmer's land is converted wetland, but that it did not become converted wetland until 1992. Therefore, the farmer is not eligible for the exemption applicable to wetlands converted before 1985, even though initial improvements were made in 1906. "Farmed wetlands" can continue to be farmed without the loss of benefits, but only so long as the previously accomplished drainage or manipulation is not significantly improved upon, so that wetland characteristics are further degraded in a significant way. In the present case, the 1992 improvements were designed to and have in fact further degraded the wetland characteristics of the farm. Next, the court holds that the conversion in this case does not qualify for the "outside agent" exception to the anticonversion rules because the farmer can be held responsible for the conversion of wetlands. The court further holds that the USDA acted consistently with its own regulations in determining that the farmer's land was classified as wetlands, on which the farmer could not farm by mechanical means without losing his eligibility for federal farm benefits. The property was properly classified as farmed wetlands rather than prior converted wetlands. Although the property that was cropped before December 23, 1995, is wetland, the work undertaken in 1992 definitely did exceed the scope and effect of the original manipulation. The court also holds that the farmer can at any time file his takings claim in a separate action before the Court of Federal Claims. Further, in an effort to avoid confusion, the court classifies the district court's statement regarding the farmer's lack of entitlement to compensation under an inverse-condemnation theory as dictum and clarifies that such entitlement would be up to the Court of Federal Claims to decide.

Counsel for Appellant
Wythe Willey
Willey Law Firm
1921 51st St. NE, Ste. 2-A, Cedar Rapids IA 52410
(319) 365-5111

Counsel for Appellees
Gary Hayward, Ass't U.S. Attorney
U.S. Attorney's Office
U.S. CtHse.
123 E. Walnut St., Rm. 200, Des Moines IA 50309
(515) 284-6257

Before Bowman and Arnold, M.S., JJ.