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DISTRICTS IN ACTION:

News Release—December 15, 2014

Western Watersheds Project says they can’t afford attorney fees

--WWP has four staff attorneys and as of 2011 had received over $2.3 million in EAJA funds

In June 2014, fifteen landowners in Fremont County, Wyoming and Lincoln County, Wyoming filed a civil trespass lawsuit against Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and Jonathan Ratner WWP Director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and John Does 1-10 with the Western Watersheds Project, Inc. for intentionally and without landowner permission trespassing and entering private property. 

In a July response filed by Western Watersheds Project, the group alleges the case is an attempt to silence the group.  According to the landowners’ attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, this lawsuit is strictly about trespass.  “Private citizens do not have the right to cross private property without permission,” said Budd-Falen. 

Dan Frank serves as legal counsel for Frank Ranches, Inc. in the trespass case.  “We told Mr. Ratner several times that he could not cross private lands to reach federal land and he continued to do so anyway,” Frank said.  “The most viable remedy is a court order prohibiting trespass so that we can hold him and WWP in contempt if he or another WWP employee violates the court order.”

The United States and Wyoming Constitutions hold the ownership and protection of private property, including the right to exclude third parties, in the highest regard.  Regardless whether your private property is your backyard in town or rangeland in the country, trespassing is illegal.

WWP alleges they do their water quality monitoring work for the “Public Interest.”   There is no one that cares more than landowners about natural resources.  Landowners work with trained, qualified and un-biased professionals to monitor the rangeland and water quality.  

“However, landowners are not comfortable having an extreme biased organization, that has not demonstrated the professional qualifications to collect credible data, trespassing their lands,” Budd-Falen continued.

According to their website, Western Watersheds Project’s agenda is to get all cows and sheep off of public lands.  In order to advance the agenda of WWP, the Defendants were willing to break laws by illegally trespassing on private property.   Trespasses by WWP occurred while collecting and submitting water quality samples to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  Trespasses also occurred while collecting range monitoring data.  Some of the data collection was even on private lands.

In their response, Western Watersheds Project alleges legal cost is too much for them so pro bono representation is necessary for their organization.  They fail to mention they have four attorneys on staff and frequently receive money from the federal government for filing lawsuits. 

“Western Watersheds Project has always been a litigious group and have been getting money from taxpayers for years,” Budd-Falen explained.  “In an analysis done in January 2011, Western Watersheds Project had been paid, using taxpayer dollars, attorney fees totaling over $2.3 million.”

“As of the Jan. 2011 analysis, 106 cases had been filed by the group,” She continued.  “Forty of those cases had a decision made on the merits, 36 cases had no decision which was made on the merits and 30 cases were still ongoing.  Additionally, there were six cases in which their attorney fees were paid, but no amount was given in a public document.”

The reimbursement money comes from what is known as the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).  According to United States Representative Cynthia Lummis’ website, the EAJA is a 1980 law that intended to provide individuals, small business and small non-profit groups with financial assistance to sue the federal government or defend themselves from a suit brought by the federal government. 

“The EAJA was intended to help people overcome a one-time challenge:  the financial disincentive of seeking judicial redress against the huge federal government,” Representative Lummis stated on her website.  “Over time, large, deep-pocketed groups have begun to make heavy use of EAJA reimbursements to fund repeated, procedural lawsuits against the federal government.”

Over time, the tracking methods and accountability of EAJA funds have been eliminated which led Representative Lummis and other House colleagues to introduce legislation in 2013 that would end EAJA payments to litigious environmental groups by disallowing payments to groups making more than $7 million dollars.

Western Watersheds Project is one of the many litigious groups that has misused the EAJA to get taxpayer money for filing lawsuits.  “To WWP, the means justifies the ends.  The WWP is trespassing on private property to advance its goals of eliminating the livelihoods of Wyoming ranchers,” Budd-Falen concluded.  “This litigation was filed because compliance with the law should mean something to WWP.”

Trespassing on private land without permission is against the law.  For this reason, the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit have the support of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Wool Growers Association. 

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Wyoming Assn. of Conservation Districts | 517 E. 19th Street | Cheyenne, WY 82001 | (307) 632-5716 phone | (307) 638-4099 fax

Mission: The Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts provides leadership for the conservation of Wyoming's soil and water resources, promotes the control of soil erosion, promotes and protects the quality of Wyoming's waters, reduce siltation of stream channels and reservoirs, promote wise use of Wyoming's water, and all other natural resources, preserve and enhance wildlife habitat, protect the tax base and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of this state through a responsible conservation ethic.