In the latest conflict between rural landowners and environmental groups, over a dozen Wyoming ranchers are suing the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), charging the Green nonprofit with repeatedly trespassing on their land to collect water quality samples.
According to the lawsuit, WWP’s trespasses date from 2005 and have continued despite direct instructions and plainly written signage to stay off private land.
“Landowners are not comfortable having an extreme biased organization that has not demonstrated the professional qualifications to collect credible data trespassing their lands,” Cheyenne-based attorney Karen Budd-Falen said in a press release.
The plaintiffs are seeking actual, nominal, and punitive damages, claiming that WWP’s trespasses interfered with the use, enjoyment, and possession of their property. They also are seeking a permanent injunction to stop further unauthorized trespass against their private property. In addition to WWP, the lawsuit targets Jonathan Ratner, WWP director for Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, as well as “John Does 1 – 10” with the WWP.
“Get All Cows and Sheep Off Public Lands ASAP!”
Headquartered in Hailey, Idaho, WWP has offices in nine Western states. The group’s hostility to grazing on public lands, to which ranchers can hold rights, can be seen in its “Policy Memo Number 2,” posted on its website which states: “To do: Get all cows and sheep off public lands ASAP!”
According to the lawsuit, WWP trespassed while collecting and submitting water quality samples to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and while collecting range monitoring data. The suit further states that when the latitude/longitude coordinates for the individual water quality site locations were placed on a map showing ownership of land, circumstantial evidence reveals the defendants trespassed on the plaintiffs’ private property.
“Additionally, two of the water monitoring site locations were illegally located on the private lands belonging to two of the Plaintiffs,” Budd-Falen said. “Because the Defendants were required to use GPS equipment to note the locations of their water monitoring sites, Defendants knew or should have known that they were trespassing on private property to access these sites.”
What’s more, the suit alleges that trespasses occurred on nearby state lands and that WWP had been notified by the Director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments on April 1, 2014, that collection of monitoring data on Wyoming state trust lands was prohibited by law that that any continued unauthorized data collections may constitute trespass.
“It is of great concern to us when an individual of an organization habitually trespasses on our private lands,” said Anjie McConnell of Frank Ranches, a plaintiff in the case. “It should also be of great concern to all people who own, use, and enjoy lands and value open spaces in Wyoming.”
Collusion between environmental groups and government regulators has been an open secret for decades. Green groups typically find a pretext – a threatened or endangered species or some other alleged infraction of environmental statutes – to try to shut down rural economies and drive property owners, no longer able to make a living, off their land.
Writer Ron Arnold has referred to this as “rural cleansing.” This may have been the intent of the WWP data collection. In this case, however, WWP is alleged to have also trespassed on state lands and drawn the ire of Wyoming officials.
The lawsuit is supported by the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and Wyoming Wool Growers Association.