Walden critizes lawsuit over feed problem

July 16, 2008 12:00 am

By ED MERRIMAN

Baker City Herald

A lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation to strip ranchers of the federal Critical Feed Use program is drawing fire from Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafer, Walden said the Critical Feed Use program is vital to Eastern Oregon farmers and ranchers during these times of record-high feed and fuel costs.

The USDA established the Critical Feed Use program in May, allowing qualifying farmers and ranchers to graze livestock or bale hay on a portion of their land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but only after nesting seasons for wildlife such as pheasants, which are set by the USDA, had lapsed.

In Baker County and other areas of Northeastern Oregon, the nesting season ended Wednesday.

Walden's letter was sent in response to a July 8 restraining order issued in the National Wildlife Federation lawsuit by a the U.S. District Court judge putting the Critical Feed Use program on hold.

"This decision represents an unwarranted hardship levied on hardworking ranching and farming families, and I strongly back the USDA's efforts to see that this decision is overturned," Walden said.

He said the lawsuit is yet another assault on rural Americans who have followed the government directions while trying to make an honest living and being outstanding voluntary stewards of the land.

USDA officials are scheduled to appear before the U.S. District Court in Seattle today to defend the program.

Two consecutive years of drought across Oregon and other western states cut hay production by nearly a third, creating a shortage that left ranchers struggling to find enough hay to feed their cattle through the winter and caused hay prices to double in many areas.

"I think the injunction is unfortunate in that the relief is much needed for livestock producers," said Cal Ransom, president of the Baker County Livestock Association.

While hay production in Baker County rebounded this spring due to timely rains, hay prices remain near record highs, Ransom said.

He said there's not much CRP land in Baker County so the grazing provisions of the Critical Feed Use program won't have much effect here, but with the potential for baling hay on millions of acres, it could affect hay prices.

"Potentially there is a lot of tonnage out there," Ransom said. "The program, if left intact, would provide relief to producers overall by dropping feed prices."

Walden said near-record feed prices reflect strong demand and tight supplies, which have been exacerbated by competition for acres where wheat, corn and other feed crops are being grown for ethanol production rather than feed.

The Critical Feed Use program was intended to make more than 18 million tons of feed from 24 million acres of CRP land nationwide available this summer for grazing or haying, Walden said.

The Oregon Cattlemen's Association and other farm and ranch groups applauded Walden's efforts to overturn the federal court judge's restraining.

Kay Teisl, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said Walden understands that with high feed and fuel prices, now is not the time to strangle management flexibility.