Twisted Mitigation for California Ranchers


Folks on their way to Fort Bragg or to see the giant Redwoods currently drive right through the tiny town of Willits, California. The Willits Bypass Project was designed to alleviate lines of traffic, but setting the wheels in motion is proving to be a legal headache.

Folks on their way to Fort Bragg or to see the giant Redwoods currently drive right through the tiny town of Willits, California. The Willits Bypass Project was designed to alleviate lines of traffic, but setting the wheels in motion is proving to be a legal headache.

By: Kayla Zilch

In the days of the famous outlaw Jesse James, farmers and ranchers fought a losing battle against the Transcontinental Railroad to keep their land and homes. Now it is almost 150 years later, but some of the same issues are still facing farmers and ranchers today, including the threat of eminent domain and an imbalance of power among government agencies.

An area facing those old issues with a new twist is the Little Lake Valley in Willits, California, where ranchers are struggling to keep grazing in the historic valley while simultaneously preserving wetland resources. The Little Lake Valley is the site for the Willits Bypass Project which has caused a battle for local land owners and ranchers against state departments and federal agencies.

Coined the “Gateway to the Redwoods,” Willits is about 140 miles north of San Francisco and is a popular route of travel for vacationers heading west to the ocean and Fort Bragg, California, and on north to tour the giant Redwoods. Because of the huge amount of traffic that travels through the heart of the small town, it is often congested and makes travel difficult for locals and vacationers passing through.

For the past 50 years, plans have been discussed to build a bypass around Willits to relieve the constant issues of traffic congestion. In 2007, plans finally started moving forwa rdon the Willits Bypass Proj ect. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) started purchasing land in the path and surrounding area of the proposed bypass. Approximately 2000 acres of property was purchased by Caltrans for the mitigation of around 65 acres of impact to wetlands. Several ranches were purchased for wetlands mitigation with the assurance that the ranchers or grazing lessees would still be able to continue grazing the property.

“I signed an agreement selling a portion of my property to Caltrans in December, 2010, under the conditions, stated in the contract, that I could lease it back to graze my cattle” said John Ford, a rancher and landowner in the area for over 20 years.

To begin construction of the Willits Bypass, Caltrans was required to obtain a Clean Water Act Secti on 404permit from the Army Corp of Engineers (COE); thus began a long period of turmoil for the ranchers of Little Lake Valley. The COE refused to grant Caltrans the needed permit unless it restricted grazing on the land managed for wetlands mitigation, under the reasoning that grazing has a negative effect on wetlands. This forced Caltrans to violate contracts with the local ranchers such as Ford and reduce grazing from 1,850 acres to roughly 1,400 acres. However, no one really knows how many acres will be grazed because the final grazing plan has not been made public.

Some parties, including rancher John Ford, suspected that Caltrans knew of the Army Corps intentions to regulate the mitigated property in September 2010. “If that information had been conveyed to me, the sale would have been different,” claims Ford. “Now if the grazing plan accommodates the Army Corp, I will be cut off from access to some areas and will lose nearly all of my summer pasture. The checkerboard pattern of grazing which is presented by the agencies limits access not only to Caltrans leases, but also to private leases.”

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed to establish regulatory procedures of United States waterways. Wetlands fall into the Clean Water Act under section 404 which requires permits to dredge or move any fill material into wetlands and is managed by the COE. However, wetlands are often grazed or farmed; so a Memorandum of Agreement dated May 3, 1990 in regards to section 404 of the Clean Water Act exempted agriculture operations from having to obtain a section 404 permit.

These cows are comfortably grazing on the wetlands where the Willits Bypass Project will eventually be built. In California alone, there are approximately 25,000 acres of razed wetlands.

These cows are comfortably grazing on the wetlands where the Willits Bypass Project will eventually be built. In California alone, there are approximately 25,000 acres of razed wetlands.

By standards of the Memorandum, the COE does not have the authority or power to restrict agricultural operations in the first place, and secondly, did not include scientific documentation backing the decision to eliminate grazing because of its effects on wetlands. In fact, science shows that grazing is essential in maintaining healthy, viable wetlands. A study by Jaymee Marty of The Nature Conservancy, “Effects of Cattle Grazing on Diversity in Ephemeral Wetlands,” showed that grazed areas had higher rates of native species, where native species in ungrazed areas of wetlands declined by 25 percent. Even the United States Fish and Wildlife service uses grazing as a “desirable management practice” for wetlands.

“The Mendocino County Farm Bureau is concerned about the precedent that the mitigation process for the Willits Bypass is setting and the potential effects it could have on agricultural operations throughout the state that may be involved with similar 404 permitting processes,” said Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones. “We are not against the project; we are against the impacts to agriculture.”

If the current Mitigation and Monitoring Plan is passed to restrict grazing on the mitigated properties for “Wetlands Protection,” the ground will lie fallow for the ten-year monitoring period. The twist is, after five years, even if the effects are negative on the ungrazed ground, the COE considers it abandoned and the property can never return to agriculture. So what does this mean for ranchers?

In California alone, there are approximately 125,000 acres of grazed wetlands. The Northern Plains (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Utah) area has 4 million acres of grazed wetlands. As populations continue to grow and urban areas sprawl, projects like the Willits Bypass are inevitable to accommodate growth along with similar mitigations. The COE extending its power over agriculture production in wetlands and wetlands mitigation contracts could potentially affect ranchers and landowners all over the United States who own or have agriculture operations on wetlands.

“It doesn’t seem right that one agency can flex its power to make a decision that impacts people’s livelihoods, the local economy and the environment without providing any science or research to document its decision and with no accountability for its actions,” said Ford.

Since 2010, several meetings have been held with the local ranchers and the community of Willits, assessing the situation and trying to reach a compromise; but the process is full of uncertainty and confusion among the involved parties. Currently a group of environmental interest groups have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration, Caltrans and the COE which alleges that the defendants violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act in their permit approvals for the Willits Bypass. Depending on litigation and the many unknowns that still surround the grazing plan for the mitigated lands the future of the Little Lake Valley could still contain grazing if the COE is held to its

All For One

WR Publisher and Editor, Tim O'Byrne

WR Publisher and Editor, Tim O’Byrne

The National Institute For American Agriculture – Working With Us To Make Things Better

By: Tim O’Byrne

Ever since it began, ranching in America has been comprised of entrepreneurs and visionaries that put several factors together (available grasslands, water, cattle, and the hungry population of an expanding country) to create a proud, self-sustaining industry.  Due to the fact that the ranchers have always been scattered out, vulnerable not just to the weather but to the politics and economic forces beyond their control, they’ve learned to band together early on, to organize and share information, representation and momentum.  If they didn’t, the whole infrastructure would have imploded long ago, and the only beef we’d see today would likely be from backyard oxen.

There’s a group that WR wants you to meet that was formed with that very goal in mind; to gather useful information on ag-related challenges, create solutions out of that info, and get those solutions out to the agriculture community, including beef producers, in order to make things better.  That’s their simple intent.  That group is the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) and it’s been eleven years since they cranked it up.  I got a chance to meet the Managing Director of the NIAA, Scott Stuart, and I’m happy to report he’s one of us.  And that makes the NIAA message so easy to uptake.  Here’s part of my visit with Scott;


WR    Scott, tell us a bit about yourself, your background with cattle, and where you are today with NIAA; how did you get involved with them?

Scott  –  I was raised on my family’s 700-head cow/calf operation in the north-central mountains of Colorado.  Our ranch ranged from 7,500 to 10,500 feet in elevation and relied on summer grazing in the Arapaho National Forest.  In the early 1980s, we sold the Colorado ranch and moved the operation to northwest Montana where we ran a smaller herd of cows and 1,000 yearlings.

I became involved with NIAA through the National Livestock Producers Association (NLPA).  I have served as the President and CEO of NLPA since 1992, and NLPA has been a member of NIAA for over 30 years.  I served on the NIAA board of directors for several years and then as chairman of the board from 2005 – 2007.


WR    What is the NIAA – give us a brief history and a bit about where it is today?

Scott –  NIAA carries a strong legacy of providing the U.S. livestock industry with a forum to collectively address issues of common interest. NIAA, successor to the Livestock Conservation Institute (LCI), is the result of a progressive process and vision that began in 1996 when the LCI Board of Directors commissioned a long-range planning team to landscape an organization that would best serve animal agriculture in the 21st century. The newly created organization, NIAA, began operations in January 2000 and is collectively addressing issues of interest to the industry, providing vital industry information, continuing education and communication outlets for animal agriculture professionals.


WR   Tell us about how the NIAA and America’s cattle ranchers are related.  What is the synergy there? 

Scott –  NIAA (LCI) was formed over a century ago in the first decade of the 1900s in order to assist cattle producers to reduce the number of animals that died in transit to the central markets.  Since that time, the association has worked to educate producers and their employees in proper animal handling methods and animal health management.

NIAA’s membership includes several cattle organizations (i.e. Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Illinois Beef Association) as well as individual cattlemen.   NIAA’s leadership includes Travis Justice, executive of the Arkansas Beef Council; Stan Mannschreck, cattle producer from Anadarko, OK; and John Braly, former executive of the California Cattlemen’s Association and VP of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The Bovine Committee is co-chaired by Dr. Karen Jordan, a cattle veterinarian and dairy producer in North Carolina, and her co-chair, Nathan Jeager, is beef director of the Alabama Farmers Federation and formerly with NCBA and Laura’s Lean Beef.


WR   That’s a very impressive lineup of influential individuals from the beef cattle sector.  What message do you want to give to our Working Ranch readers on behalf of NIAA

Scott  –  NIAA is an organization that is comprised of a very broad range of animal agriculture participants from individual producers, to veterinarians, to animal health agencies, to animal health companies, to association executives. NIAA has earned the reputation as being the association where all segments of animal agriculture come together to find workable solutions to the difficult issues facing the industry.

It is extremely important that cattlemen have their beef-specific organizations; and NIAA provides the ability to draw on the expertise of representatives from other species areas such as pork, lamb, poultry and dairy, in order to provide solutions in the areas of animal disease management, animal handling, and animal care.


WR  So the NIAA forum is effective in areas of animal agriculture that crossover, or on interspecies issues that overlap.  I can see the value there because it isn’t always about beef, per se.  What do you want our readers to do to contribute or participate with the NIAA mandate? 

Scott  –  NIAA membership is open to anyone and any entity that believes in animal agriculture and wants to be involved in working to address the myriad of issues those not in agriculture seem to throw at the industry.  Members can be involved in the 11 species and issues-based committee and council system to ensure their input is fully received.

Simply put, NIAA is made up of individuals who have a deep desire to contribute to the industry they believe in and cherish.


WR  Scott, thanks for this great information, I understand you’re having a convention soon, let’s make sure our readers know about that beforehand.

Scott  –  Yes, the 2011 Annual Conference of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture will be held April 11-14 in San Antonio, Texas.  The sessions will focus on the elements of a stable food supply; food security; food safety; animal agriculture’s importance in the ecosystem; and effective ways to communicate with stakeholders. Go to www.animalagriculture.org to get the details.
Scott Stuart serves as Managing Director for the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, and as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Livestock Producers Association, both based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Scott was raised in Colorado on his family’s commercial cow/calf ranch. His on-the-ground experience in livestock production management and marketing comes from having managed cattle ranches in both Colorado and Montana.  Scott earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Agricultural Business and Economics from Colorado State University and attended law school at the University of Wyoming. 


NIAA office building

In February of 2009, the NIAA moved their offices from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to the new NLPA building in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  The new offices are not designed for outside functions; all of NIAA’s and NLPA’s conferences and symposia are located in central locations like Kansas City, Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Denver.

Special National Update

political rancher jan. 2015

edited by Tim O’Byrne

Editor: Every December we invite the three national beef cattle associations to enlighten us on their adventures of the past year, and expound on their vision for the year to come. Without further ado, I turn the apple box over to our esteemed colleagues, but not before first thanking them for their selfless dedication to protecting the sustainability of the industry and lifestyle we love so dearly.


The United States Cattlemen’s Association has wrapped up yet another successful year representing U.S. cattle
producers from across the country. Whether it be in the courtroom, the halls of Congress or at the table serving
as a voice for producers within industry- wide discussions, USCA is now, more than ever, the voice of the U.S.
cattle producer.

As we head into 2015, the issues of focus for USCA and the industry will remain Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and Beef Checkoff reform. You will also see us addressing EPA overreach and additional concerns as they arise. USCA will remain the leader in representing the U.S. cattle producer. During the recent annual meeting, USCA members elected a new President to lead USCA into 2015 and to continue on the path blazed by former President Jon Wooster. Danni Beer (Keldron, SD) will serve as the new USCA president and in her role will represent the organization in upcoming industry discussions.

2014 has seen a number of victories on the COOL front. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled twice now in the span of 12 months in favor of U.S. cattle producers in the suit brought against the rule and the USDA by a group of packer-processor based groups including National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the American Meat Institute (AMI), National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), North American Meat Association (NAMA), Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Pork Council, Mexico’s National Confederation of Livestock Organizations, Southwest Meat Association and the American Association of Meat Processors. USCA, with the support of producers like WR readers has continued to lead the defense of COOL in this arena. With multiple victories now under our belt on this issue, USCA is confident that the rulings passed down have served to reaffirm
the legitimacy and constitutionality of the current law.

The most recent decision handed down by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on this issue has served to
further USCA’s stance that COOL is a program vital to our industry and the producers it represents. USCA will work
with the Administration in addressing the ruling to ensure that COOL remains the law of the land.

Checkoff reform has been elusive and frustrating in 2014. Finally, this past September, Secretary Tom Vilsack stepped in and provided an opportunity to not only increase funds for the promotion, education, and research of beef products, but to also write a new order for a new beef Checkoff under the Commodity Promotion Act of 1996. The
Secretary’s idea would not disturb the controversial beef Checkoff, written under the 1985 Beef Promotion Act.
Producers will have the opportunity to help develop a new beef Checkoff that better fits today’s marketing environment, increases efficiencies, and gives producers more control of the program by allowing for periodic referendums instead of relying upon an act of Congress to make changes to the program.

While some issues have proved divisive within our industry, there were also issues which brought consensus.
USCA and other agriculture groups were able to work as a collective group representing all of those within the
agricultural industry. 2014 saw the exaggerated use of government agency overreach by the EPA in the proposed
changes to the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The agricultural industry came out in opposition to the rule,
and USCA and a broad coalition of stakeholders submitted extensive comments against the rule representing the beliefs of those ranchers and farmers whose private land and operations would be unduly impacted by the rule.
In 2015 USCA will continue to look for opportunities to make the voice of the US cattle producer heard.

As USCA looks to expand on issues impacting our industry in 2015, it will continue to provide producers with
an effective voice in DC. USCA, as a bipartisan association, will continue to work with Members of Congress on
both sides of the aisle during the new session and in doing so will be able to seamlessly work on those issues affecting
you—the producer. USCA has led on issues important to you in the past and we will continue to do so in the
year ahead. Your voice is being represented by USCA, the question now is—-are you a member of the one group representing those issues most concerning YOU as a producer and your bottom line? Go to uscattlemen.org to learn more about joining the association looking out for ranchers from California to Texas to the Dakotas and Virginia and everywhere in between.


Four years ago industry pundits downplayed our disrupted cattle cycle. They claimed the five million cows already liquidated were unwanted because better genetics were producing bigger carcasses. Soon, however, those same pundits began panicking over a severe cattle shortage.

By 2014 cattle supplies were tighter than ever, driving cattle and beef prices to new highs, even though beef demand hovered around 2007 levels. Pundits quickly claimed that widespread droughts caused the unprecedented herd decline.

But, the national herd began shrinking in 1996 and the U.S. was not drought-stricken for all those 18 years. So, what caused our shrinking industry?

Another livestock sector provides insight: Hog prices hit near records from 1995-1997, but nose-dived in 1998 to the lowest levels in the 20th century. Iowa State University reported operating losses of $73,857 for the average hog farm.

Experts said a 10% production increase and record Canadian live hog imports helped drive the 1998 collapse.
Hog producers exited the industry in droves. What remained is a meatpacker-controlled, vertically integrated

Achieving vertical integration is a process we call “chickenization.” It is achieved by reducing competitive markets and industry participants. The cattle industry is the last to be chickenized, but the process is underway.

In 2014 R-CALF USA championed competition, defended pro-competitive policies and property rights, and
blocked chickenization efforts in the cattle industry by:

• Forcing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to admit it did not know if Beef Checkoff Program dollars were being spent in accordance with the law, thus triggering needed reform efforts.

• Intervening in the lawsuit filed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and its Canadian and Mexican counterparts against our pro-competitive country of origin labeling (COOL) law, thus preserving COOL.

• Submitting comments and building a coalition to oppose USDA’s efforts to import fresh meat and livestock from Brazil and Argentina, which are affected by foot-and-mouth disease.

• Lobbying Congress to rescind legislative language that insulates meatpackers from the producer protections
in the Packers and Stockyards Act.

• Supporting the lawsuit to help a packing plant resume horse slaughter in the United States.

• Blocking efforts to repeal COOL and weaken enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act in the 2014 Farm Bill.

• Blocking an effort by multinational corporations to suspend our “Buy American” laws.

• Making presentations to cattlemen’s associations and the American Bar Association to explain the impacts of lax antitrust enforcement and illconceived free trade agreements.

• Urging the U.S. Air Force to change its plans to increase low-level military flights over prime ranching areas in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

• Submitting comments to the Environmental Protection Agency in opposition to its proposed rule, Waters of the United States. In 2015 we will continue to: 1) give ranchers the tools they need to compete in today’s global marketplace; 2) take from multinational meatpackers the tools they are using to chickenize the cattle industry; and, 3) reform trade policies to reflect the need to generate net exports, not trade at any cost.

Check us out and join with us at www.r-calfusa.com.


While 2014 turned out to be a strong rebuilding year for much of the cattle industry, we saw a number of our policy priorities stalled due largely to the build up to the election and the regulatory zeal of this administration.

On the regulatory front, much of this year was spent combating EPA over their “waters of the United States” proposed rule and urging our membership, and landowners nationwide, to submit comments. This is not only a mammoth land grab by the agencies but an immense increase in their administrative authority. With a new Congress seated, we will look for revived and bi-partisan interest in legislation to address the concerns of landowners.

We have again had a great year for trade, with strong beef demand, as we are poised to top last year’s record
export value. Our largest trading partners for U.S. beef remain Japan, Mexico and Canada with exports adding in excess of $300 per head in value for U.S. cattle producers. Unfortunately, despite strong support and continued adherence to tariff elimination by our trade negotiators, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has seen very limited movement.

We have spent much of this year reviewing and working on comments for two proposed rules to allow the
importation of fresh and frozen beef from Brazil and Argentina. With a long history of Foot and Mouth Disease in
these areas, it is vital that we carefully review these rules. No trade is worth sacrificing the health of our herd, and we
do not believe APHIS has adequately assessed these risks, or that Argentina or Brazil have shown the ability or commitment to adhere to our standards.

As expected, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico that the amended U.S. COOL rule violates our international trade obligations and discriminates against Canadian and Mexican livestock. This brings our economy one step closer to retaliatory tariffs and we continue to call on Congress to fix COOL before we further damage these trading relationships.

We continue to urge Congress to pass key tax extenders and give producers and small businesses certainty in the current tax year. And we will continue to work this next year, to encourage Secretary Vilsack and the Administration, not to move forward with their plans for a duplicate beef checkoff, which would give the Administration unprecedented control over beef promotion, research and education, and jeopardize the work of the current Beef Checkoff Program.

In this next year, we look forward to working with the new Congress to ensure our policy goals remain a priority.