Judge orders agency to release Idaho ranchers' addresses

Stephen Miller | Freedom of Information | Feature | September 15, 2010

A U.S. District Court in Idaho ruled Monday that the public’s right to know outweighed personal privacy interests in a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought against the Bureau of Land Management by two environmental groups, according to court documents.

In August 2007, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians filed a FOIA request for the identities of livestock grazing permit holders in an attempt to evaluate the bureau’s management of grazing on Idaho’s public lands. The bureau refused to disclose the contact information of its permit holders, citing FOIA Exemption 6, which allows government agencies to withhold “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The bureau was primarily concerned with the privacy of family-owned or closely-held ranching businesses. It claimed that the disclosure of individuals’ addresses, paired with already public information regarding the size of herds, could result in inferences being made regarding the individual’s personal finances.

The environmental groups filed suit under FOIA, arguing that releasing the names and addresses of grazing permit holders “would not reveal damaging, embarrassing, or specific financial information,” and thus did not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Moreover, the groups contended that a list of permit holders’ names, which the bureau was willing to disclose, is not enough to know the identities of permit holders, how many grazing authorizations were held by each and how many were grazing a single land allotment.

Judge Candy W. Dale balanced the privacy interests of Idaho’s grazing permit holders against the public interests of those wishing to shed light on the agency action related to the permitting scheme.

She found “a substantial public interest in understanding the scope of the grazing and rangeland program, particularly in light of the environmental impacts associated with grazing and the amount of tax dollars spent on the grazing program itself,” according to her opinion. Judge Dale also noted that with both a name and address, the public could determine if a permit holder was grazing on other allotments that have been classified as ecologically damaged.

The privacy interests of Idaho’s grazing permit holders, she ruled, were not threatened by the release of their addresses and were outweighed by the public interest. The documents were, therefore, ordered disclosed.