By Steven Long, Photo by Terry Fitch
Journalist, author, and artist Laura Leigh won a major First Amendment victory in federal court when Reno’s Judge Larry Hicks ruled it unconstitutional for the BLM to bar observers and the press from observing wild horse “gathers.”
But she was barred by local deputies and threatened with if she pursued her recently won right to observe wild horse “gathers.” Why? Because the trap site used by the federal agency was located on privately owned land. Leigh was told the l andowner would not allow press
and public on his property.
BLM officials told her to get permission from the landowner if she wanted to see the horses.
“In the BLM response to my desire to observe Tuscarora (Owyhee specific) they claim that I should have independently contacted the landowner. How can I do that if they do not provide the trap site locations that are actually in use and the landowner’s information? Are we supposed to trespass and then ask the person listed on the summons?” she wrote to Horseback Magazine.
In a letter to BLM dated July 27th, the magazine asked for the names and contact information for the landowners. The agency response – a stone wall reminiscent of the classic Joseph Heller anti bureaucracy satire, Catch 22.
The bureau responded through Washington spokeswoman Melodie Lloyd saying “Because of FOIA rules, we are unable to supply the name and contact information of landowners for the Calico and Tuscarora gathers.”
FOIA is government shorthand for the federal Freedom of Information Act whose goal is government openness. BLM is using the law to shield its cozy relationship with local landowners and to prevent observation of its activities.
Leigh had run into a bureaucratic obstacle as stout as the Berlin Wall of bygone days.
To outsiders, that wall appears to have been erected for the same purpose as the original – to shield a government agency habitually accused of ham handed treatment of those outside its tight knit circle of ranchers, oil companies, and hunting interests.
Leigh was caught in a classic example of Orwellian doublespeak.
If the government won’t reveal who to ask regarding obtaining permission to step on private property, it’s impossible to step on the property without risking arrest, even though the government told Leigh to ask permission – Catch 22.
Lloyd also responded to another question posed by Horseback Magazine. How much is the government paying to lease the private property it uses
? The answer was surprising, and again demonstrated the cozy relationship wild horse activists charge is enjoyed by Nevada ranchers and the federal agency with whom they lease grazing land at the fire sale price of $1.35 per month per cow.
“The BLM, in all the years it has been conducting wild horse and burro gathers in Western states, has never leased private property for use as a trap site or for holding pens. Taxpayer dollars have not been used in the past, and are not used today,” Lloyd responded extolling the Nevada landowner’s generosity.
Despite Judge Hicks’ ruling, the BLM is continuing to make it difficult to observe its activities.
It appears determined to continue to take a hard line preventing unfettered press and public access to its secretive roundups according to today’s response from its Washington spokeswoman even though a federal judge has ruled that doing so is unconstitutional.
“When the gather site is located on private property, it is the landowner’s decision whether to allow anyone, including the BLM or contract gather personnel, access to his/her property. The BLM lacks jurisdiction over privately-owned lands and does not have the authority to grant access to the public to enter private lands. When the roundup site is located on public lands, the BLM will make arrangements to provide access to the public, keeping the safety and well-being of the horses and those performing the work as the top priority.”
Leigh has continued to file motions in her case against the government, a case in which government lawyers mislead the judge regarding the availability of easy access to water.
The site is chosen by the helicopter chase contractor, she said.
“When beginning preparations for a roundup, the BLM enters into an agreement with a gather contractor who consults with the Wild Horse and Burro Specialist to look at maps of the HMA and review the locations of previously used roundup sites. The gather contractor then scouts the herd management area by helicopter. Important factors taken into consideration when selecting a site are proximity to where the herds are located at the present time as well as where they normally travel within the HMA, the availability of water, the accessibility of roads and the topography of the land,” she said.
“Oftentimes private land roads, over which heavy vehicles must travel during a roundup, are superior to the BLM roads
which can be more primitive. Ultimately, the selected site must be conducive to protecting the health and welfare of the animals being gathered and the safety of those conducting the gather. When the gather contractor identifies a suitable site, he must obtain concurrence from the BLM and then coordinate with the private landowner to secure authorization before beginning any preparations. For the recent Calico and Tuscarora gathers in Nevada, the gather sites used were “historical” sites that the BLM has used for the past 10 – 20 years.”
Finally, Horseback questioned recent reports from local landowners of horses leaving BLM pens in the dead of night. We asked if the agency would request the Justice Department to investigate whether animals were being stolen by department employees.
The BLM animal counts are historically inaccurate and activists have repeatedly called for independent investigations.
Again, BLM threw up its impenetrable stone wall.
“Since the BLM has provided information in answer to the allegations raised, we do not plan to involve the Department of Justice,”
When 54 members of Congress are petitioning for BLM roundups to stop, perhaps agency officials won’t have to ask the FBI to look into matters.