North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer hosted a town hall meeting with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and farmers and legislators spoke about visits from officials carrying papers, maps, sidearms, and kevlar vests.

One man with papers and six men with sidearms and kevlar, that's how speakers described their encounters with US Fish and Wildlife Service officials.  There they'd be, the speakers, farmers all, out in their fields working on some tiling or ditch clearing, and in pulls USFWS vehicles claiming ownership of land that was not part of any original agreement.  One man with papers, and three of six men with guns surrounding us, was the story repeated.

 North Dakota's only US Representative, Kevin Cramer, was in Devils Lake, Friday morning, in the basement of the Ramsey County Courthouse.  He was seated between Matt Sprenger and Maureen Gallagher.  Sprenger is the USFWS Project Manager in Devils Lake, and Gallagher the National Fish Habitat Action Plan Midwest Regional Coordinator at US Fish and Wildlife Service USWS, St. Joseph, Missouri Area.  Cramer was holding a town hall meeting to let regional farmers and legislators (often one in the same) let the USFWS officials know what happens literally in the field, far away from the office.

 The threat, as USFWS see it, is to the wetland easements that were bought more than fifty years ago.  Times were tougher, the land quite a bit drier, and a "fellow from Denver," so said all the stories, went around the region to farmers, the grandfathers and fathers of those speaking at the town hall, offering to buy easements for waterfowl habitat, or just for the offer a few dollars for untillable land.  Permanent easements, perpetual and non-revocable.  When these farmers sat down with this representative from the USFWS, they didn't have lawyers present and when they signed the contracts they thought, they were assured, that the easement was for a specific amount of swamp land.  Ironically, some of these same farmers, or their fathers, were given money in the 1930s to drain some of the very land they were now selling conservation easements to a few decades later.

 "There are many stories," said Dennis Johnson, "of the Fish and Wildlife Service coming in fifty years ago and buying one slough hole and ending up with every little pothole."  Johnson is a farmer outside of Devils Lake and a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives.

"When I talk to my colleagues up and down the flyway," Cramer said, "one thing we all talk about is what we do here, and that's conservation.  Farmers have already every incentive and always have had to conserve the land.  We didn't drain all the wetlands when we could have and it's because of you farmers and your stewardship that we have them.

 There was discussion about  North Dakota legislation that took effect this past July, that stipulates all easements over fifty years old must be renegotiated or they become null and void.  "This is because," one speaker said, "what we have right now is federal overreach.  And legislators will litigate."

Later, outside the meeting, Brandenburg said that his message was simply "let's work together."  "I'm very willing to acknowledge that my grandfather signed off on thirty acres," he said.  "But he certainly didn't on the whole 640.  And in 1976, Congress changed wetland law from civil to criminal, so you can't even sue, can't take their claims to court.  Here in North Dakota, we legislators have to get Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on board because he hasn't wanted to go to court on any of this."  Brandenburg smiled, "But until I get run out of the legislature, I'm going to sponsor bill to fix this."

 "Is this a Tenth Amendment issue?"  Cramer repeated the question.  This was after the meeting before he left.  "That's a good question.  It certainly pits state interests against federal, and it certainly is a Constitutional question.  I don't know.  But I think we'll find out.  You know what else?  I had people raise their hands because the director never believes me.  They have no idea how their people are out in the field."

{Read the complete story in the Monday, Sept. 25, print or eEdition.}