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Forest Service withholding of ranching permits called arbitrary

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.

The conservationist Forest Guardians in New Mexico has — at least temporarily — lost its bid to see how extensively escrow waivers are used by ranchers who hold grazing permits on public lands. (See NM&L, Fall 2000)

A federal district court judge ruled in mid-January, in response to an intervention by the banks and ranchers involved, that the U.S. Forest Service’s indecisiveness was arbitrary and capricious. The court said that the agency sometimes withheld the information, sometimes granted it and ultimately had asked the court for “an advisory opinion” as to what it should do.

Judge Edwin Mecham ordered the agency to consider the evidence and determine whether the information is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act because it would intrude upon personal privacy or because it would cause commercial harm. However, the judge ruled that personal identifying information and personal financial information would clearly be protected. The judge encouraged the parties to reach a new settlement agreement.

Forest Guardians contends the widespread pledging of federal grazing permits as collateral increases the government’s incentive to maintain the status quo and makes multiple-use decisions that could protect the public’s lands from over-grazing almost impossible. The group had agreed with the agency to accept escrow records with individual loan amounts deleted, but banks and grazing allottees intervened.