Access to USDA Geospatial Data Still Contested

Central Platte NRD appeals dismissal of lawsuit

Source: TIMBERLY ROSS, Associated Press Writer,, 12:58 p.m., Saturday, October 16, 2010

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Central Platte Natural Resources District has appealed the dismissal of its federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over access to information. The Central Platte Natural Resources District has spent five years trying to gain access to the geographic information system data kept by the USDA‘s Farm Service Agency. Better known as GIS data, the information is used to map and track things like irrigation practices and cropland. It can also be used to help guide district decisions. But the district has received only “evasive responses, feigned cooperation, shifting legal interpretations and flagrant stonewalling” from federal officials, according to the lawsuit filed in September 2009 in U.S. District Court in Lincoln. The lawsuit was dismissed in September. An appeal was filed earlier this month with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

For full text of the article, click here.

See also:

Central Platte NRD sues USDA over information access

By Robert Pore, The Independent, Tuesday, September 22, 2009 7:56 PM CDT

The Central Platte Natural Resources District filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Farm Service Agency, alleging they wrongly denied the NRD access to USDA data, according to an Associated Press report. The NRD is trying to gain access to the USDA’s geographic information system, or GIS, data to help it provide guidance on irrigation practices, mapping of cropland and district decisions. The decision to sue the USDA was made at the NRD board’s last meeting, in early September. But NRD Manager Ron Bishop said the issue between the NRD and the USDA has been festering for a while and has been costly to the taxpayers of the Central Platte NRD. “We have requested the information over the last four years,” Bishop said. “We were told that we couldn’t have it, then told we could have it, and then we could have part of it.” The Central Platte district encompasses all or part of 11 counties in south Central Nebraska along the Platte River. The district decided to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the information from the USDA in an effort to “bring the issue to a head,” Bishop said. “At one point, they indicated that we were going to get it, but then the new Farm Bill changed the language on the privacy deal, and now they say we can’t have it,” he said. Bishop said the information could be used to determine such practices as fertilizer and water use on private farmland that receives government farm benefits. For example, when it comes to the Central Platte NRD water quality program, having access to information about those growers who use nitrogen fertilizer would be helpful and cost effective. “Without access to those FSA records, it is very difficult to know on a year-to-year basis who is raising corn and who is not,” Bishop said. “Then we have to inquire of every producer that we know of across the district to see whether or not they are raising the type crop that has to report for water quality.” Another example in which access to that USDA information would be helpful to the NRD is when the district had to certify all the irrigated acres in the Central Platte NRD. There are nearly 1 million acres of irrigated farmland in the district. The district had to certify all irrigated acres when the state mandated in 2004 a moratorium on all new irrigated acres and irrigation wells in districts that were deemed fully or overappropriated in their groundwater use. “We had to develop a base for the state,” Bishop said. “Had we had access to FSA records of who owned it, we could have done that in about 45 days with one person.” But because the NRD was denied those records from the USDA, Bishop said, the district spent nearly two years at a cost of about $350,000. He said the district was again denied access to the USDA information on the basis that the NRD was not a cooperator with the USDA in its conservation program.”That’s why we finally decided to file suit and ask the court to order them to release that information to us so we can save the local taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars every year,” he said. Bishop hopes to have the lawsuit settled by the first of the year. Along with access to the information, the NRD is also asking the court, if it is successful, to have the USDA cover the NRD’s court costs. USDA officials didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit, according to The Associated Press. The case has implications for the state’s 23 natural resources districts, primarily for water-management purposes, Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts, told The Associated Press. “It seems kind of ridiculous for us to duplicate all of that and spend more local tax dollars to regenerate information that’s already there,” he said. The data also could help farmers and producers keep track of their collective water usage and know how to reduce use in certain areas, Edson said.


And you may recall before the Farm Bill was passed…

Court ruling forces release of FSA databases

Source: The Prairie Star, Monday, April 20, 2009 2:53 PM MDT

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Producers may have reason to be concerned about confidentiality after a court ruling recently forced the Farm Service Agency to release its databases to a national publishing company. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on Feb. 15, 2008 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) must release its compliance database, geospatial information system database and 11 other databases to Multi Ag Media, LLC. Multi Ag Media, LLC is described as a publishing company that sells custom lists to ag marketers. An FSA press release described the databases requested by the firm as “complex and statistically detailed” allowing the disclosure of farming operation details at specific geographic locations. The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) said today that the ruling will likely set a precedent affecting the release of other information gathered by USDA agencies and programs. “One of U.S. cattle producers’ primary concerns about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) has been the forced disclosure of proprietary business information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),” said Jon Wooster, USCA President. “It appears those concerns are warranted. This ruling calls into question any assurances by USDA of confidentiality.” The court’s decision allowed FSA to withhold Social Security numbers and names of individuals. FSA officials warned that based on the information provided it would not be difficult to link farm numbers to specific property and then determine who the information is attributed to. “While NAIS remains voluntary on the national level, we know that in Colorado an attempt is being made to force compliance with the premises registration component of NAIS for 4-H and FFA youth who want to compete at their state fair, affecting not just the youngsters but their families and the family property as well,” said Wooster. “This court ruling is a significant turn of events, sending a signal that families who enroll their premises and livestock in the program may not be protected from exposure. Congress must address the confidentiality issues before livestock identification moves forward any further.” Established in March 2007, USCA is committed to concentrating its efforts in Washington, DC to enhance and expand the cattle industry’s voice on Capitol Hill. USCA has a full-time presence in Washington, giving cattle producers across the country a strong influence on policy development.

To see prior postings about this case and legislation, click here.

In response to Multi Ag Media case, NAAS relased an FAQ regarding NAAS data and FOIA.

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