The implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetland Conservation Compliance provisions (aka “Swampbuster”) program, designed to protect wetlands located on farming property, was the focus of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. On April 1, 2015, the Court of Appeals decided the case of Maple Drive Farms Limited Partnership, et al., v. Tom Vilsack, Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling and remanded the matter, holding that the proceedings conducted by the agencies of the Department, described by the District Court as a “bureaucratic labyrinth” were inconsistent with the Department’s own regulatory framework, and were arbitrary and capricious.
The Swampbuster provisions are part of the Food Security Act of 1985, which denies agricultural benefits–which can be substantial–to farmers who convert wetlands or farm converted wetlands. There are exceptions to these restrictions which Nicholas Smith, the owner of Maple Drive Farms, has attempted to utilize by means of administrative appeals and finally a lawsuit challenging the Department’s implementation of the law and its exceptions.
The land in question is located in Michigan, and consists of 50 acres, and only 2.2 acres of this parcel is considered to be wetlands. With the assistance of the Department, Smith began farming this plot more than fifty years ago, or well before the Food Security Act was enacted. This parcel was drained and successfully farmed until the early 1980’s when the drainage facilities began to deteriorate. After a few false starts, Smith again attempted to drain the land, and filed the appropriate forms with the Department in 2008. At that time, the Department’s representatives determined that the 2.2 acre parcel was a wetland, and eventually a “converted wetlands”.
The Department’s administrative determination triggered the Department’ s complex administrative review procedures, which are implemented by local state agricultural agencies with considerable federal oversight. At the end of the day, Smith was denied any relief, and was declared ineligible to receive the statutory benefits because he had farmed converted wetlands. On appeal, Smith persuaded the Sixth Circuit to reverse the District Court’s order.