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Official Forecasts 'Litigation Armageddon'

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, January 9, 2001

As federal salmon protections slammed down across the Northwest on Monday, the state's agriculture director despaired of hope for farmers in the "litigation Armageddon" to come.

"Today ... everybody gets invited to the party to get sued," said Jim Jesernig, veteran state agriculture director from Kennewick. And, he added, "When agriculture has tried to fight its fight in the courts, it's usually lost."

After more than a year of meetings between farm groups and regulatory agencies, there's no tangible results from the Agriculture, Fish and Water forum that once seemed to offer farmers a way to avoid federal salmon crackdowns.

While some negotiations are progressing, "I think we are moving into the litigation Armageddon ... that I have been worrying about for the last six or seven years," Jesernig told the Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce at Monday's kickoff of the Mid-Columbia Farm Forum and Ag Show.

Former Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth Hage is the lunch speaker at the farm show today at noon at the Trade, Recreation and Agricultural Center in Pasco. She also plans to address Endangered Species Act issues.

At the state Horticulture Association in Wenatchee, Director Jim Hazen was slightly more upbeat than Jesernig about the potential of the agriculture forum to protect farmers from the so-called 4 (d) rule that went into effect Monday.

Hazen said the liability of farmers is reduced because farm groups are active in discussions about salmon upgrades. "However," he said, "I have to admit that ... there is not a lot of protection from third-party lawsuits.

"I don't want to scare anyone -- but on the other hand, I just don't want anyone to think they are covered just because they are involved in some kind of discussion process."

Dean Boyer, spokesman for the Washington Farm Bureau, said farmers largely were using environmentally friendly methods. And, he said, the agriculture forum has allowed federal regulators to visit farms and see the good things being done in the name of salmon recovery. "That was an extremely important step that had to be taken," he said. "We are encouraged by some of the responses."

Still, there are several burning issues for farmers, many of which will be even more fractious than usual this summer because it looks to be a very short water year.

The biggest fracture in Jesernig's view is the lack of agreement about proper buffers to protect streams from farm chemicals and animals. On that topic, there's vast disagreement between farmers and regulators, who in places want a mile of buffer, Jesernig said.

"It could be devastating for people," he said.

While stream-side buffers have the greatest impact in Western Washington, federal and state agencies also are facing pressure to limit the damage to salmon from pesticides. Jesernig expects environmental groups to sue in the near future to force the issue. And that has the potential of creating a severe slowdown in issuing emergency exemptions for farm chemicals.

Also, said Jesernig, tribes are starting to pressure the state to provide more fish habitat, a discussion that could soon turn to the amount of water in streams.

The good news is irrigation districts seem to be closer to getting standards that could help them avoid federal penalties, one of the two main goals of the Agriculture, Fish and Water forum. "We can reasonably say that some progress has been made," Boyer said. "We knew going in that it would be ... close to two years before we started to see any actual results."

Mike Lee
Official Forecasts 'Litigation Armageddon'
Tri-City Herald, January 9, 2001

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