May 24, 2017
RENO, Nevada – This month legal action was filed in federal district court on behalf of Wild Horse Education (WHE) founder Laura Leigh. The action is based on withholding of critical information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that directly effects appropriate engagement in process, the ability to educate and inform the public and press, the ability to defend accusations against environmental interests and even the ability to keep oneself safe from physical dangers.
In October two FOIAs were filed. The documents contained in these FOIAs have either been redacted to contain no meaningful information or have to date, provided no information. These requests center around investigations that were supposedly occurring into apparent conduct, that may have violated multiple Codes of Federal Regulations, near Eureka Nevada. The actions included multiple entities pushing for state control of public land, and the exclusion of any voice that opposed their agenda, from 2015-2017. The events included county and state protests against the involvement of advocacy and their interactions with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees.
“Everyone has a legal voice in the process of public land management,” said Danielle Holt, an attorney with Atkin, Winner and Sherrod representing Leigh, “When information is withheld that impedes the ability to engage appropriately and creates an environment where an interest is actually afraid to exercise a Constitutional Right, every American should be concerned.”
“I’ve tried every avenue I know of to engage process lawfully to protect wild horses, work to inform the public and create a better environment all around.” said Laura Leigh of WHE, “Over the last year I have literally been reduced to tears more times than I can count because of manipulation, intimidation and blindness that makes me feel the federal government cares nothing about fairness. This environment created by BLM is part fact and part fiction; when they withhold crucial information there is absolutely no way to distinguish between the two. I feel that I was intentionally placed between a rock and a hard place and it scares me.”
During the timeframe covered in the FOIA request BLM managers actively engaged with individuals responsible for the ongoing, 2 year long, “Grass Camp” outside a BLM district office, intimidation and/or apparent violations of federal law to assist these individuals with achieving their varying objectives.
The National Riparian Services Team, at a cost of over half million dollars to the tax payer, was brought in to assist those that had set up physical protests after losing a legal battle at “Argenta livestock allotments,” that was legally upheld by the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) as appropriate, after drought closures.
The largest fertility control program for wild horses in the nation at the Fish Creek HMA in NV did not receive any such special attention after litigation, protests and a virtual social media storm spearheaded by the county and individuals connected to events like “Mahluer” and the Grass intimidation camp. It appears those conversations were held privately among those that engaged against agency action, that was upheld by the IBLA as appropriate, with the NV State Director John Ruhs and other BLM managers. The BLM, to date, has revealed no meaningful information on its negotiations with the county and state.
“The Nevada FOIA office has long stymied forthright disclosure of information under FOIA requests.” stated Katie Fite public lands director for WildLands Defense, “Under John Ruhs as NV BLM Director, the public's access to observe BLM meetings and monitoring sessions was blocked to placate bullying ranchers in the notorious Argenta allotment and rancher law-breaking was tolerated if not encouraged. Ruhs is now Acting BLM Deputy Director for Operations in DC, with more power to kill transparency and public access.”
As Legislation is proposed to overhaul how we manage all of our public land, informed and appropriate engagement is crucial. Public debate from the local to the national level must occur.
On April 4, 2017 Leigh reached out to the BLM Resource Advisory Councils (RAC) for help with this situation. Resource Advisory Council activity has been suspended by the Department of Interior. The only option federal land managers have left open, to pubic engagement, are public comments on activities where they control the process of how, where and to whom they share information without public debate.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2016 former Battle Mountain District manager Gerry Smith spoke of the tensions in Battle Mountain when the new State Director, John Ruhs, wrested negotiations of contentious areas from the current District Manager, Doug Furtado. In the interview he spoke of the environment of intimidation and fear. "There's a small percentage of ranchers that can't stand being told what to do," he said. Both Argenta and Fish Creek are in the BLM Battle Mountain District.
“I lived that contentious environment as a private citizen and BLM volunteer. I watched people walk on eggshells to not upset the State Director,” said Leigh “I continually watched any voice that opposed the agenda pushed out, intimidated or ignored. When you compound that with what appears to be the intentional act of hiding information about ‘deal making,’ and perhaps even avenues where avoidance of the law is provided, it is much more than a concern over your voice in process, it becomes a real concern for your safety.”
The legislative landslide includes transfer of public land to states and counties. Deregulation, defunding and power struggles are playing out in Congress that place not only the BLM wild horse and burro program at risk, but all of public land. Current discussions in the BLM include euthanizing 45,000 wild horses in government holding facilities.
“Without an informed public, and public debate, the very principles of democracy fail to exist.”