Judge orders names, addresses turned over to environmental groups

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The names and addresses of ranchers who rely on public lands for livestock grazing must be turned over to environmental groups, according to a federal court order.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management cannot withhold such records for privacy reasons under the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ruled on Sept. 13.

The public's interest in understanding the full impact of BLM's grazing program "outweighs the minimal privacy interests" of permit holders, Dale said in the opinion.

"Understanding the scope includes knowing how many individuals or entities actually graze cattle on public lands, as well as the size and scope of their operations," the ruling said.

Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians initially filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in 2007. After BLM refused to disclose the names and addresses of all permit holders, the groups filed a legal complaint against the agency last year.

The environmental groups would be unable to complete an extensive analysis of public lands grazing without those records, said Todd Tucci, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

"There's no way to fully understand that program without the names and addresses of the permittees. The public has a right to know who is grazing, how much they're grazing and when they're grazing," Tucci said. "It's absurd for the BLM to try to hide this information."

The federal government has not determined whether to appeal the ruling, but it will have 60 days to make that decision after a final judgment is entered, said Nicholas Woychick, an assistant U.S. attorney who represented BLM.

Turning over the name and address records to environmental groups "would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," the agency said in court documents.

By relying on existing records, the public can already "determine virtually everything there is to know about the BLM's management" of grazing on individual allotments, the agency said.

While the names and addresses of ranchers wouldn't shed much additional light on the BLM's grazing program, they may "directly or inferentially result in unsolicited contacts and/or reveal at least a portion of the owner's personal finances," the agency said.

The environmental groups countered that names and addresses are needed to verify that BLM doesn't issue permits to ranchers who had violated grazing terms on other allotments, which is contrary to agency policy.

The records will generally provide a more accurate view of BLM'S grazing program, the groups said. "This information is also important in understanding whether the non-competitive nature of BLM's leasing and permitting program is assisting new entrants into the ranching industry, or protecting the interests of a few entrenched ranchers."

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