A Stearns County, Minn., farm couple had a court case brought against them by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Stearns County Environmental Services Department dismissed after being wrongly charged for violating a wetland on their property.
Sauk Centre farmers Jean and Pat Fiedler found themselves — and neighbor Howard Marthaler, who had stopped to help repair drain tile — as defendants in a criminal case. Jean Fiedler and Marthaler were repairing 66 feet of drain tile in a 120-foot-wide buffer on Nov. 9, 2014, when a DNR officer stopped by and told Fiedler his buffer was a certified wetland.
Ten days later, the Fiedlers and Marthaler were charged with being in violation of a certified wetland, despite a federal permit that stated he did not have a wetland on his farm. By the time the case was dismissed in a 10-minute hearing on March 18, the Fiedlers had incurred $7,138 in legal fees and court costs.
“Charging my neighbor with a crime did not sit well with me,” said Fiedler, “especially because there was a 12-inch snow storm pending and he had only stopped to help. So from the day this started I was not going to let the DNR use power to abuse my friend and neighbor.”
It all started on July 14, 2014, when Fiedler applied for a 1026 Natural Resources Conservation Service permit for permission to clean a portion of the ditch and repair drain tile. On Aug. 27 he received a new federal approved wetland determination stating there are no wetlands on his farm. Federal permission was granted to complete the work.
While finishing the tile repair with his neighbor’s assistance, a DNR officer drove by, stopped and declared to Fiedler that all grass ditch buffers with water running in tile lines across them are now considered to be a new wetland, regardless what documentation or permits a landowner may have. The DNR officer cited recent training and experience.
“I was surprised to learn that DNR now had come up with a new wetland determination method that classifies tile lines as wetlands if there is water running in them,” said Fiedler. “He also told me my neighbor had no right to help me unless he first applied for special permit from the county. He then said he was going to write up a criminal citation for this assumed violation with my neighbor Howard Marthaler named as the person committing the assumed crime.”
Fiedler said the young DNR officer did not understand federal or state laws regarding wetlands and drainage. Fiedler told the officer that he has an NRCS permit and the federal wetland determination that there were no wetlands on his farm.
“This officer then told me the grass buffer appeared to be a wetland and he would be asking Greg Bechtold, Stearns County Environmental Services Director, to review his conclusion so he could issue a citation,” said Fiedler. “With less than one year’s experience this DNR officer basically stated he does his own wetland determinations and did not want to know the facts.”
Throughout the next week, the DNR officer refused to meet with Fiedler. Fiedler learned that DNR and the County Environmental Services Department staff were on the same page, but Fiedler said they did not even have copies of NRCS and Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources rules.
“They have no respect for the landowner; not even bothering to give me a call,” said Fiedler.
In a conversation with Stearns County Environmental Services, Fiedler was told that the county is required to convert grass buffers that have not been farmed in over 10 years into wetlands and add them to the National Wetland inventory. Fiedler offered to send his permits and maps to county staff.
“They told me my federal determinations and permits do not mean anything to them,” he said. “I then asked that they send me a copy of the new maps they have created and mark the location of my violation. Staff sent the map but refused to mark where the violations were.”
Upon seeing the maps, Fiedler said he realized Stearns County had no idea what they were doing; that it appeared that both the county and DNR chose to ignore the documents; and the county did not get along with NRCS. The end result was a criminal citation for violating a wetland.
“I was completely shocked,” said Fiedler. “I did not realize Stearns County could create their own set of rules and ignore federal and state law. I am very disappointed to now realize county staff is not there to help Stearns County residents with fair treatment. Their goal is to side with the DNR.”
Fiedler hired St. Cloud, Minn., attorney Kurt Deter, an expert in land and water cases. Deter advised Fiedler to plead not guilty and requested a Demand of Disclosure which requires all communications to be made available to the defendant.
Stearns County Environmental Services wrote to Fiedler informing him that its office had no control over ticketing. However, the DNR cannot write a citation without county recommendation, explained Fiedler.
On Dec. 12, Fiedler reported that the DNR began making harassing phone calls and making visits to neighbors.
Later that month, Fiedler met with legislators at the state Capitol. He talked to Rep. Paul Anderson, chairman of the House Ag Committee; Rep. Denny McNamara, chairman of Environmental Services Committee; John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota BWSR; and Major Greg Salo, enforcement chief for Minnesota DNR.
In January, Fiedler requested copies of the rules between BWSR and NRCS from Stearns County staff, who wrote back stating they were not aware of any rules. So Fiedler sent the rules to Stearns staff and then met with Environmental Services staff to point out mistakes. On Jan. 20, Fiedler said county staff acknowledged the work he was doing on 66 feet of tile in a buffer did meet a Wetland Conservation Act exemption.
“I asked ‘Where were these rules when this first started? And why was the DNR officer not informed of this exemption on day one?’” said Fiedler. “But another big surprise, after sending me the exemption in writing, the DNR decided to continue pursuing criminal charges.”
A pretrial was set for Jan. 26, but that morning the county attempted a plea bargain and a reduction from $280 to $50 fine, and criminal charges to a petty misdemeanor.
“That would have required me to plead guilty,” said Fiedler. “I refused to plead guilty and wanted a trial. I hadn’t broken any laws. The wrong people were being put on trial. The county staff were the ones not following the law.”
A new trial date was set for March 18. Fiedler reviewed the evidence the county provided the court.
“The field map they were using to charge me was black and white, and totally unreadable and encompasses 320 acres,” said Fiedler.
He requested a map with a zoom on the 10-acre area involved and said he was shocked at the staff response that the data was not “in our field, and we aren’t the ‘responsible authority’ for that data.”
“How absurd,” Fiedler said, “after over four months they now said they did not even know where I was digging and did not have any information in their file. In my mind there was no question they had the information, knew it is wrong, so refused to help.”
Next, Fiedler copied from the internet larger-scale maps showing the location and marked their mistakes.
“Knowing staff would not agree with my interpretation, I also sent larger clean unmarked maps and asked them to mark on the maps what they had been charging me with,” he said. “They refused to identify anything on the larger maps. Seemed to me that as the cover up got worse they had no place to turn and hide.”
The county responded with a letter from its attorney.
“Their attorney called me a criminal a number of times in his letter to me,” said Fiedler, “and said the county did not need to provide me with any information.”
On March 18, in Stearns County Judge Vicki Landwehr’s courtroom, Stearns County Environmental Services and DNR requested a continuance. Landwehr denied the request and dismissed the case.
“These people have been trusted with great power and chose to overstep their bounds,” Fiedler said. “Fairness within our legal system has been tilted so far away from the individual that most people have no chance. ... I felt it was finally necessary for the good of all Minnesota farmers for someone to step up and stop the DNR’s abuse of power.”
Fiedler voiced concerns regarding Gov. Dayton’s Buffer Initiative, especially if the DNR is the law enforcer. He said that given his recent experience with the department, it will be a sad day for Minnesota citizens if the initiative becomes law. Fiedler said his goal is to get government back inside the lines.
Ironically, in 1988 the Fiedlers received the Outstanding Conservation Farmers Award from the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District. In 1989, this farm couple was the Minnesota state winner of the National Endowment Soil & Water Conservation program.
They noted soil moisture and erosion problems on their 1,600-acre farm about 10 years earlier, and switched from standard moldboard plowing to a deep tillage system providing better absorption of rainfall, virtually zero run-off of soil and nutrients, with resulting higher corn yields and greater net profits.
Today Fiedler Farms is a 3,500-acre business. Daughter Pam and husband Bob Gierke along with son Paul and wife Steph Fiedler raise 90,000 hogs.
Wildlife hasn’t been forgotten either. Field wind breaks, wildlife food plots and wetland restoration projects are now part of their farming landscape which also includes the production of several thousand hogs each year.