U.S. judge allows haying and grazing on CRP land

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. farmers and ranchers who have already been approved can participate in a government program allowing haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve land, a federal judge in Seattle said on Thursday.

In the decision, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour also ruled the U.S. Agriculture Department violated environmental law when it determined the special program would not damage the environment and as a result a risk-assessment study was not needed.

The permanent injunction put in place by the court prohibits haying and grazing except in certain cases.

In addition to those contracts that already have been approved, haying and grazing will be allowed for farmers that submitted an application before a temporary restraining order was issued on July 8 and in cases where the producer can show they were relying on the government program.

Launched on May 27, haying and grazing would have been allowed on Conservation Reserve land after the wildfowl nesting season is over, provided landowners receive permission from USDA. It could have freed up to 24 million acres and was intended to reduce livestock feed costs for farmers and ranchers.

The lawsuit by the National Wildlife Federation and six state affiliates argued USDA did not comply with environmental law requiring steps such as an environmental impact assessment before offering the land.

USDA spokesman Keith Williams said only a “small fraction” of the 24 million acres would be used for haying and grazing.

Currently, USDA is in the process of determining whether to release land without penalty from the reserve to help boost crop production.

Overall, some 34.7 million acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve, created in 1985, which pays landowners an annual rent to idle environmentally fragile land for 10 years or more.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Marguerita Choy