Farmers across the West are afraid they are losing control of their land after the Supreme Court upheld fines against a California grower for plowing wetlands without federal permission.
``We are going to be overwhelmed with environmental restrictions, which we already are,'' said Bill Stokes, president of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association. ``I would think environmentalists would want to see a vineyard instead of houses.''
Angelo Tsakopoulos, who has 900 acres of apples and wine grapes in California's Central Valley, wanted the justices to rule that farmers don't need the same permits to plow fields that developers need to build shopping malls or new subdivisions.
Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tsakopoulos, the owner of the Borden Ranch, had violated the Clean Water Act by converting grazing land to vineyards and orchards.
A split decision Monday by the Supreme Court with one justice abstaining because he was an acquaintance of the farmer means the ruling stands.
At issue was the use of a ``deep ripping'' plow that punctures at a depth of six feet, used in preparing land for orchards and vineyards.
Under the Clean Water Act, a farmer does not need permits if he engages in ``normal'' farming practices. Farmers say the Supreme Court's failure to define normal farming practices has them fearing that doing any plowing could arbitrarily result in fines.
Federal officials said Tsakopoulos filled in wetlands in the same manner as a factory that dumps chemicals into a river without a permit. Tsakopoulos, who was ordered to pay $500,000 and restore four acres of wetlands, said he appealed the case to defend the rights of farmers, not to avoid the financial penalty.
``There were so many people arguing this case who knew nothing about farming,'' Tsakopoulos said. ``Many of the people involved don't understand what a plow does. A plow loosens the soil, it doesn't fill anything.''
While farmers question the court's action, environmental activists say it prevented those in the road building, mining and homebuilding industries from also trying to get similar exemptions, said Howard Fox, an attorney for Earthjustice.
``Essentially what they were looking for was the right to destroy wetlands and streams on a massive scale without any accountability,'' he said.
Arizona Farm Bureau President Ken Evans said the case ``is an example of the government interfering with private property rights of individual landowners,'' and that farmers must be allowed to make their own planting decisions in a tight farm economy.
Rick Krause, an American Farm Bureau attorney, said he expects a similar case to go to the Supreme Court.
``There's no clear direction,'' he said. ``A court now could conceivably address the issue whether normal plowing would also require a permit. That is something we would certainly not like to see because it would greatly restrict what farmers could have on their own property.''