Date: Friday, January 3, 2020
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued new internal guidance to provide better government services and alleviate conflict with landowners stemming from easement deeds that pre-date 1976. The actions by the Service to improve its easement processes started last October when Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and U.S. Senators Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and John Hoeven (R-ND) participated in a roundtable with rural landowners to discuss how outdated easement maps and a vague appeals process were cumbersome for affected residents.
“I appreciate the leadership of Senators Hoeven and Cramer in bringing this issue to light as we have taken action to minimize needless conflict with farmers in protecting waterfowl,” said Secretary Bernhardt. “President Trump and I are committed to ensuring that we have a government that better serves the American people and is responsive to addressing real concerns.”
Easement deeds that pre-date 1976 did not contain maps or sufficiently detailed descriptions to ensure accurate demarcation of wetland easement boundaries. This lack of clarity led to confusion for landowners and hampered the Service’s ability to resolve easement boundary disputes in a commonsense way. The Service is modernizing the way it demarcates wetland easements that were established before 1976 to clear up this confusion.
In the coming weeks, the Service will contact thousands of landowners who have pre-1976 wetland easement deeds to provide them with maps overlaid on aerial imagery detailing the boundaries and acreage of their easements. As discussed in the roundtable with Senators Cramer and Hoeven, maps will also be available electronically, so landowners can insert data into their mapping systems and GIS-capable equipment.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to being a good neighbor and ensuring we meet our obligations to private landowners who have granted wetland easements on their lands,” said Service Principal Deputy Director Margaret Everson. “That means clearly identifying easement boundaries, providing a transparent and just means for landowners to appeal boundaries and applying internal processes consistently, fairly and in a timely manner.”
Upcoming outreach will inform the pre-1976 wetland easement landowners of their right to appeal the mapping determinations to Service officials, if they so choose. The letters will be sent detailing the updated appeals process and providing helpful information if landowners have additional inquiries.
“I am glad to see Secretary Bernhardt respond to the concerns of the North Dakota landowners whom we met with during our trip to Hope earlier this year. Providing quality maps is fundamental to defining property ownership and establishing an appeals process ensures we follow due process and protect people’s private property rights,” said Senator Cramer. “I am confident this process will produce mutually beneficial results, building on the important USFWS guidance from 2017 which instructs the agency to be cooperative, willing partners while limiting the use of law enforcement officers. I thank the Secretary for his work — including on the issuance of new and improved maps —and I encourage landowners to engage in this process.”
“We appreciate the efforts of Secretary Bernhardt regarding perpetual easements and wetlands determinations at the USFWS,” said Senator Hoeven. “Our landowners, including farmers and ranchers, deserve due process without having to bear the burden of costly litigation. We look forward to continuing our work with the administration to ensure these reforms provide an adequate appeal process and much-needed regulatory relief.”
This is the first of several easement actions to be taken by the Service, which are intended to deliver better government services for the American people. In the coming weeks, the Service will clarify how drain tile setback recommendations are calculated and how and when the Service will pursue legal action in the case of setback violations. The Service will also clarify how they will initiate contact with landowners when they suspect there has been a violation of a wetland easement and how landowners can appeal the violation.