ND farmer defies government by draining wetlands
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP)--Armed with a tractor or a backhoe, Alvin Peterson bulldozes the dirt that chokes the waterways forming prairie potholes on his land, saying he's putting it back to the way God intended.
The 78-year-old retired farmer from Lawton, in northeastern North Dakota, has been in hot water with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over wetlands for more than 40 years. The agency had an easement contract with his father for the potholes to house and feed wildlife.
Federal authorities, after dealing for decades with Peterson's pothole-emptying antics, began cracking down on him. In November--and for the second time in four years--Peterson was convicted of illegally emptying wetlands. Now he faces stiff fines and jail time.
Peterson remains unfazed.
"I didn't make the waterways, the good Lord did," Peterson said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, along with hunting and conservation groups, view wetlands as an environmental oasis for waterfowl and other creatures. Peterson sees the potholes as a pain, swamping his land with water and weeds and preventing him from raising crops.
"Alvin Peterson is somewhat of a government protester," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Hayden, who has prosecuted Peterson. "He inherited the farm from his father and never liked the easement. He began a system of draining every prairie pothole he could find with his tractor."
Peterson claims his dying father was tricked by government officials into signing an easement in the mid-1960s. He said his father was given a one-time payment of about $4,700 that forever keeps dozens of acres on the farm free of crops and under government ownership.
"They've done this in a sneaky way--you'd think you were living in Russia," Peterson said. "I've had trouble with them ever since they stole this land from my father."
Peterson was found guilty on Nov. 11 of two counts of improper drainage of wetlands, after a trial before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal in Grand Forks.
A sentencing date has not been set. Peterson faces up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Hayden said Peterson will likely be hit with a heavy fine but won't be locked up.
"I will not be requesting that he go to jail," Hayden said. "I see no point in that."
Peterson was first convicted in 2004 of draining four wetlands protected by an easement held by the Fish and Wildlife Service. He was sentenced in 2005 to two years of probation and ordered to restore the four wetlands and pay a $4,000 fine.
Federal wildlife officials, under the protection of armed U.S. marshals, filled in a waterway to re-establish the potholes.
Peterson said the show of force on his farm was unnecessary.
"I'd never hurt a Fish and Wildlife man," Peterson said. "They suffer by living."
Authorities say Peterson drained some of the once-restored wetlands again last year, immediately after his probation expired. Peterson maintained that he was only cleaning out waterways.
"It was plugged up," Peterson said of a 30-foot-wide, 2-foot deep slough. "I got it wide open and running like it's supposed to."
Except for two years he was in the Army in Korea in the 1950s, Peterson said, he has spent his entire life on the Ramsey County farm, northeast of Devils Lake.
"I was born 20 feet from where I'm talking to you on the telephone," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I've walked every foot of this land, poisoning gophers and riding ponies."
He said the government's efforts to create wetlands on his property have failed and that there was more wildlife on the land before the government-established wetlands.
"Those wetlands--the ducks can't survive there," Peterson said. "They're so full of cattails, there is no place for them to breathe and no place for them to land."
Lloyd Jones, the Dakotas refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said wetlands provide crucial habitat for wildlife, even with cattails.
Jones, a biologist, has been working on wetlands issues for three decades in the prairie pothole region of the Upper Midwest.
The government began buying conservation easements in 1958, he said. It has spent about $60 million to acquire some 1.5 million acres, of which 900,000 acres are in North Dakota and 500,000 in South Dakota. Montana, Minnesota and Iowa account for the remaining acres, Jones said.
Money for the program comes largely from the sale of federal Duck Stamps.
The program has not been without challenges, both legal and otherwise. In the 1960s, the government funded competing programs--one that paid farmers to drain wetlands and one that paid farmers to preserve them, Jones said.
"Preservation won out," he said.
In 1995, two Hope-area farmers were charged with draining three Fish and Wildlife easements the agency purchased on their land. The farmers, brothers Mike and Kerry Johansen, challenged the agency, saying they drained potholes outside the original easements.
Federal authorities argued that the wetlands, which had expanded after years of wet weather, were covered under the original easement. The government lost its case, and charges were dropped.
Jones said disputes over the easements typically are settled through negotiations.
"Ninety-nine percent can be worked out," he said. "Alvin would be the 1 percent. Negotiations with him, unfortunately, have not proven to be successful."