North Dakota landowners with perpetual wetland easements from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in effect since before 1976 will have an improved process for settling boundary disputes with the federal agency under a Director’s Order the FWS issued Friday, Jan. 3.
Friday’s action follows an October visit to North Dakota by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. During the visit, Bernhardt and U.S. Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, a pair of Republicans from North Dakota, participated in a roundtable near Hope, N.D., with rural landowners to discuss how outdated easement maps and a “vague” appeals process were cumbersome for affected residents, the Interior Department said in a news release.
The Interior Department oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In announcing Friday’s order, the FWS said easement deeds that pre-date 1976 did not contain maps or sufficiently detailed descriptions to ensure accurate boundaries of wetland easements. That caused confusion for landowners and hampered the agency’s ability to resolve easement boundary disputes.
Landowners with perceived easement infractions were intimidated and charged by the FWS, resulting in lengthy court battles, personal loss and even bankruptcy in some cases, according to a news release from Cramer’s office.
Friday’s announcement provides due process for landowners with perpetual FWS easements pre-dating 1976 on their property. In the coming year, the FWS will contact thousands of landowners with pre-1976 easements and provide them with maps overlaid on aerial imagery detailing the boundaries and acreage of their easements.
The maps also will be available electronically, and the outreach process will provide detailed instructions for landowners seeking to appeal the mapping determination, should that be necessary.
“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,” Cramer said in a statement. “I am confident this process will produce mutually beneficial results.”
Hoeven said North Dakota’s congressional delegation looks forward to continuing work with the Trump administration to ensure the reforms announced Friday provide “an adequate appeal process and much-needed regulatory relief.”
“Our landowners, including farmers and ranchers, deserve due process without having to bear the burden of costly litigation,” Hoeven said in a statement.
The FWS said it also will clarify in coming weeks how drain tile setback recommendations are calculated and how and when it will pursue legal action in the case of setback violations. In addition, the agency said it will clarify how it initiates contact with landowners when it suspects a wetland easement violation and how landowners can appeal the violation.
“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,” Margaret Everson, FWS principal deputy director, said in a statement. “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.”