By Brett Barrouquere
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - An environmental group is suing a pair of Kentucky farmers over subsidies they received over a two-year period for growing corn and soybeans in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky.
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics wants a judge to order farmers Kerry Underhill and Bobby Cunningham to pay between $5,500 and $11,000 per day for each day they received subsidies for farming the land without a valid lease from the U.S. Forest Service. The Oregon-based environmental group also wants an injunction stopping the farmers from filing for further subsidies without a lease with the government.
At issue is whether Underhill and Underhill Farms in Cadiz, and Cunningham and Cunningham Farms in Murray, should have been eligible for federal farm subsidies on their crops between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 19, 2010. The environmental organization said the two had leases with the National Wild Turkey Federation, not the U.S. Forest Service, making them ineligible for subsidies.
U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell in Paducah unsealed the lawsuit Friday afternoon after the federal government declined to intervene in the case. Attempts to reach Underhill and Cunningham were unsuccessful Monday morning.
Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, expects the lawsuit to die after the federal government's decision.
"There are just some windmills that are impossible to joust against," Stahl said.
Stephanie Collins, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville, said the government declined to join the litigation after a "thorough investigation" of the allegations.
The issue arose when the U.S. Forest Service signed an agreement with the South Carolina-based National Wild Turkey Federation in 2008 to administer lease agreements with the farmers for the land. In February 2010, Russell struck down the agreement between the government and the federation. Russell ruled that the Forest Service could not delegate its power to enter into lease agreements to private entities.
The environmental group contends that ruling invalidated the leases held by Underhill and Cunningham, making them ineligible for subsidies. The two farms, which have been growing soybeans and corn on the land since at least 1999, reached new agreements with the Forest Service in March 2010, but those agreements weren't retroactive.
According to the lawsuit, Underhill, through Underhill Farms, received $38,158 in subsidies in 2008 and $34,312 in subsidies in 2009. Cunningham, through Cunningham Farms, received $28,111 and $160,884 in farm subsidies during those same years.
"They shouldn't have gotten those subsidies because the judge said so," Stahl said. "There's really no dispute."
The lawsuit, filed in August 2010 but unsealed on Friday, is the latest skirmish between Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and the Forest Service about agricultural use in Land Between the Lakes, a peninsula of land between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake stretching from western Kentucky into Tennessee.
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics sued the Forest Service in June 2008 over permits allowing two farmers to grow crops in Land Between the Lakes. After the suit was filed, the Forest Service reached an agreement with the National Wild Turkey Federation to manage some of the land, including the farm fields.
The federation then signed contracts with two farmers to continue growing corn and soybeans on more than 2,100 acres with the land leasing for $10 an acre in an area where farmland leases from $78 to $99 an acre.
The contracts came with restrictions on pesticides and a requirement that 20% of what's planted is left in the field to feed wildlife, including deer and wild turkeys. The same farmers previously had permits from the Forest Service to grow the crops.
Land Between the Lakes has a long history with farming, serving as home to thousands of families and farms for about 200 years until the Tennessee Valley Authority took over the area and forced the families out in the 1960s with the goal of creating the largest natural preserve east of the Mississippi River.
When the land was seized, houses were torn down; the town of Golden Pond was reduced to a rest stop. Fields became overgrown with plants, trees and natural flowers. Other than old family cemeteries, most signs of human habitation were removed.
The Forest Service took over the land in the 1990s and farming has been allowed in spots over the years, angering former residents who felt betrayed by the decision to issue special permits.