Another land dispute brewing

Rancher faces off with federal government over land use near Pomeroy

Could the next land-use dispute between Westerners and the federal government be brewing right here in Eastern Washington?

You bet it could. And rancher Walter “Sonny” Riley of Pomeroy and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane could be right in the middle of it.

Over the years, there’s been several land-use uprisings in the West. The two most recent incidents people these days are familiar with are the so-called “Battle of Bunkerville” in Nevada during 2014 and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon during 2016. As you know by now, most of the defendants involved in the cases brought by the federal government have been exonerated of any crimes. There’s also the failed low-key effort by Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge officials in Cheney to gain control of farmland bequeathed to teenagers in a will a couple years back, right here in our own state.

Now, a new battle is brewing over a small parcel north of the Snake River just a couple hours drive away outside Pomeroy. So far, it looks like this matter will end up in court.

Sounds like another waste of taxpayer money to me.

At issue is the grazing rights of the 71-year-old Riley, who raises cattle along the river on land currently managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed in federal court to force the rancher to pay fines and fees for allegedly trespassing, encroaching and damaging public lands. The federal government also wants his cows off the land.

In court documents, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref accuses Riley of illegally grazing cattle on land managed by the federal government, as well as generally installing feeding amenities for a feedlot.

Riley’s family has grazed cattle on the land since the mid-1940s. But high-water issues prompted the family to sell some of the land in the 1960s to the public to be managed by the Corps, which manages the dams along the Snake River.

The land was never fenced off and Riley’s family and other ranchers continued to use the land without issue until about 6 years ago. Shortly thereafter, the Corps started ordering Riley and other adjacent land owners to halt grazing activity.

Since that time, it’s been all downhill for ranchers there.

It’s not surprising the issue has ended up in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane. In fact, the agency is charged with handling legal matters relating to federal agencies operating here in Eastern Washington.

But it is noteworthy to point out that the same office was involved in both the Malheur and the Turnbull cases.

Former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington Michael Ormsby — the former head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane — was tapped as the man to prosecute Ammon Bundy’s attorney. You may recall Bundy’s attorney was tasered and tackled by U.S. Marshals during court proceedings over the Malheur standoff.

And it was Ormsby’s second-in-command, attorney Pamela DeRusha, who employed strong-arm tactics to try to give wrest control of the teenagers’ farmland and turn it over to Turnbull.

When the Battle of Bunkerville case ended in dismissal with prejudice last month, Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane said he hoped it would help curtail the strong-arm tactics federal agencies use in land management in rural areas. And when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reprimanded federal employees for their tactics in the cases, it appeared as if those changes may be coming.

Obviously, along the Snake River, the change isn’t coming fast enough. And rural residents and taxpayers will be paying the bill for continued shortcomings in federal land management practices.

— Roger Harnack is the editor and publisher of The Daily Sun. Email him at


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