Arlen and Cindy Foster are farmers in Miner County, South Dakota. Arlen’s grandfather bought the land over a century ago, and the family has been working it ever since. In 1936, Arlen’s father planted a tree belt on the south end of the farm as a conservation measure. As the weather warms, the snow around the tree belt melts and the water flows into the circular depression, called a “prairie pothole” (circled in blue on the lower right hand part of the picture). Unfortunately for the Fosters, the federal government has declared that the shallow depression is a protected wetland, and thus denied them the productive use of that portion of their land.
Department of Agriculture regulations define what qualifies as a wetland, but remain vague on some of the details. The regulations say that, if a parcel’s wetland status can’t be determined due to alteration of the vegetation (such as through filling or tilling the land), a similar parcel from the “local area” will be chosen to act as a proxy. “Local area” is never defined, but a 2010 internal field circular refers agency officials to an Army Corps of Engineers manual that uses the parallel language “adjacent vegetation.” Here, the agency interpreted “local area” to refer to an area of almost 11,000 square miles and then selected proxy site some 33 miles from the Fosters’ farm. That proxy site supports wetland vegetation, so the Fosters’ land was also declared a protected wetland.