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Family Farm Alliance discusses ESA, prior appropriation during annual meeting

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Las Vegas, Nev. – Members of the Family Farm Alliance met in Las Vegas, Nev. on Feb. 18-19 to discuss a number of important topics that impact irrigators across the West.

Savery rancher Pat O’Toole serves as the president of the Family Farm Alliance and noted that their recent meeting covered many subjects, but two served as the primary focus of the event.

“Two things really stood out – an endangered species panel and a panel discussion on prior appropriation,” O’Toole said.

Water concerns

One panel discussion featured the topic of the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation.

“We hear so much about water shortages, and we often hear that the Australian Model is the answer to our water problems,” O’Toole said. “Family Farm Alliance had ex-Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs of Colorado talk about why prior appropriation is so critical.”

O’Toole explained that the Australian Model widely toted as the answer to water shortage is simply a system of federalizing water use that would effectively take water away from agriculture.

He continued, “The Australian Model breaks down individual water rights to become a top-down model that is worse than the Waters of the United States rule. It takes the water rights from agriculture and gives them to the government to dole out to municipalities, environmental needs and others.”

“Ag drops right to the bottom,” O’Toole added. “The Australian Model means increased federalization. That isn’t good for Wyoming or any other western state.”

Endangered species

A second panel discussion highlighted a topic that has been widely recognized around the West over the past year – endangered species.

“The endangered species panel included myself and Jason Peltier, the manager of one of the major irrigation districts in California,” O’Toole explained, adding that Pellatie is one of the foremost experts on the listing of the delta smelt in California. “David Willms from Governor Matt Mead’s Office and Executive Director of the Western Governor’s Association Jim Ogsbury were also on the panel.”

Panelists discussed the impact of Endangered Species Act (ESA) listings and looked at the importance of revisiting the ESA.

“We had a tremendous discussion about how the Western Governor’s Association’s action now is not only appropriate but crucial,” he said. “The experience of the listing of the delta smelt and the impact of irrigators in California shows us how important the Wyoming plan was in preventing a listing.”

Referencing sage grouse, O’Toole noted that the challenges that may accompany implementation of resource management plans across federal land are much less detrimental than a listing may have been.

“The sage grouse is a success story, and the fact that the western governors are taking the action they are will keep it going,” he added. “Our Governor understands how broken the system is and the way we implement it today.”

Further, O’Toole asserted that the ESA has been nationalized and is only be utilized by radical groups who are seeking the destruction or irrigated agriculture and public lands grazing.

“What makes it more poignant is that the Center for Biological Diversity and Water Watch sued Deschutes Irrigation District in Oregon,” he explained. “That district is considered to be one of the most progressive, wildlife-friendly districts in the nation. It shows that these groups are trying to break the system down, and they aren’t interested in working together.”

O’Toole looks forward to continued work aimed at improving the ESA and said he will continue to represent the Family Farm Alliance at meeting held by the Western Governor’s Association around the region.

2016 priorities

While other topics also highlighted the conference, O’Toole mentioned that the Endangered Species Act will be a priority for the Family Farm Alliance for this year.

“I attended a meeting in Washington, D.C. during the first week of March that brought together a bipartisan group that is looking at the potential for legislation to amend and improve the ESA,” he said. “We kicked off a journey of discovery about how the system isn’t working.”

The group will continue meeting, attending forums hosted by the Western Governor’s Association and supporting the organization in its efforts to fix the Endangered Species Act.

Young people

O’Toole also mentioned that young and beginning farmers are another priority for the Family Farm Alliance in 2016 and moving into the future.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do to influence young people to come back to ag?’” he said.

Referencing a group of young farmers in southwestern Colorado who have worked on improvements benefitting the Colorado River, O’Toole explained that the enthusiasm from young producers is both impressive and infectious.

“It was really cool to see the enthusiasm that the young people who want to be in agriculture have,” he said. “Many of them were small landholders doing remarkable work on soils.”

In emphasizing the necessity to help more young people to enter the ag industry, O’Toole noted that open federal land permits may provide an opportunity.

“The Forest Service released the fact that there are 800 permits available in the West,” he said. “Why aren’t we prioritizing these permits for young people to get their start in agriculture? We discussed this as a great opportunity.”

At the conclusion of the conference, O’Toole said, “It was a really good meeting. There was a clear message that, where private landowners and production agriculture are present, so is biodiversity. Production agriculture is where the answers to a lot of these questions lie.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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