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South Dakota Farmer Fights Legal Battle Over Classification of Farm Puddle as a Wetland

By Jean-Paul MacDonald,

A farmer in South Dakota finds himself entangled in a legal battle surrounding the classification of a puddle on his farm. Despite his attempts to present new evidence, both a government agency and the court system have refused to reevaluate the case.

Recently, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the farmer, rejecting his plea for a fresh review of the wetland determination. According to the court's ruling, the property occasionally experiences ponding resembling a shallow puddle during the spring snowmelt.

The contested puddle on the farmer's land in Miner County, located in southeast South Dakota, was initially designated as a wetland back in 2004. The farmer argues that the wetland formation was a consequence of tree planting and has been unsuccessful in convincing the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) otherwise.

In 2008, the farmer requested a review, but it was not until 2011 that the NRCS conducted the assessment, ultimately reaffirming the wetland status of the site. Seeking a reevaluation, the farmer submitted a third review request in 2020, which included an engineering report stating that the ponding was a result of the tree belt and fell outside the jurisdiction of the Swampbuster Act, according to court documents. The NRCS requested the engineering firm to specify the new evidence, but neither the firm nor the farmer responded to the request.

In 2021, the farmer sought assistance from the district court to compel the NRCS to reconsider the case. However, both the district court and the Eighth Circuit upheld the NRCS's position, asserting that the agency was not obligated to conduct another review. The appeals ruling mentioned that the language in the Swampbuster Act was "ambiguous" and that the agency's regulations did not conflict with federal law.

The farmer's argument includes the contention that a wetland certification remains valid only until the landowner requests a review. However, the NRCS maintains that it will only reconsider if there is a naturally occurring event that triggers a change or if the agency itself acknowledges an incorrect certification.

The frustration for the farmer extends beyond the legal aspect, as the presence of the puddle restricts the full utilization of the field in question. Adding to the farmer's disappointment is the fact that the trees were planted at the NRCS's request, specifically to the farmer's father.

The farmer's legal representative has indicated that a case involving the interpretation of statutes by government agencies is pending before the Supreme Court. They are currently considering various options, including the possibility of requesting a review of the case by the Supreme Court.

Despite the relatively small size of the puddle, its classification as a wetland has significant implications for the farmer's land use and agricultural activities, exacerbating the need for a resolution in this ongoing dispute.

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