WHITE MOUNTAINS — Like a cloud of dust from a galloping herd of mustangs, commentary and criticism arose from the recent release of the final draft report of the collaborative working group brought together to consider the future of the horses on the Heber Wild Horse Territory.
Some work group members and stakeholders outside the work group are dedicated to maintaining the Heber herds as they are today. Others have expressed dissent over whether the horses should even be afforded protection under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
The diverse working group members met between August, 2017, and November, 2018, were charged with collaborating to provide a written document containing recommendations for the Forest Service to use in the creation of a Heber Wild Horse Territory management plan. The working group was facilitated by Arizona State University.
According to ASU and the Forest Service, the report was the result of 14 months worth of collective study, discussion, data analysis, and work “… critical to providing for the sustainability of the area’s natural resources and for the horses of the Heber Wild Horse Territory...” wrote Apache-Sitgreaves Forest Supervisor Steve Best in the press release.
“This was quite different than a public meeting; instead it was a collaborative working group where people were engaged in putting together management recommendations for the Forest Service,” explains ASU Assistant Professor Michael Schoon. “Our job was to ensure that we included people from a diverse set of perspectives and a variety of communities that were able to attend all meetings and operate within the guidelines, protocols and agreed-upon goals for developing recommendations specific to the Heber Wild Horse Herd.”
“The participants were informed of the dialogue and discourse from the beginning of the process and that’s what we held throughout,” added Schoon.
“There were numerous smaller task-group meetings and discussions in addition to the meetings,” adds Schoon. “Working group participants drew on input from the BLM, the Forest Service, scientific publications and from their respective constituencies, engaging in frank conversations to arrive at their recommendations.”
Why the need for a work group?
The Heber Wild Horse Territory was established in 2007. Since then, the Forest Service has drawn heavy criticism from wild horse advocates for not creating a formal management plan for the horses. The pressure was turned up in the summer of 2017 when an extreme drought left waterholes dry and horses dying of dehydration. Horse advocates, local residents and the Forest Service came together to haul water to the horses, while bringing the lack of a management plan back to the forefront.
In response, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) enlisted the help of ASU and professional facilitation company, Southwest Decision Resources, was hired to lead the work group.
“One of the primary goals of the collaborative’s working group was to come up with practical solutions that could actually be implemented,” writes Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor’s Office, Information Assistant Steven M. Johnson.
Following publication of the working group’s document/draft, the Independent solicited comments from work group participants and members of the public.
Response from participants and the public
Reaction from work group participants shared in ASU’s press release appeared positive and hopeful.
“The collaborative effort was an amazing process of bringing a knowledgeable, dedicated group of volunteers together to review extensive information from experts with the result of providing better management options with the goal of protecting the Heber wild horses,” said Soleil Dolce of Arizona Equine Rescue Organization in the press release.
“The Working Group came together presenting positive and fair recommendations for the management of the Heber wild horses,” said Barbara Rasmussen of the Gila Herd Foundation of Arizona in the press release.
“I believe the collaborative has offered a balanced set of recommendations that will allow for equitable sharing of resources for horses, elk, and cattle in the Heber Wild Horse Territory,” says Vashti “Tice” Supplee of the Arizona Elk Society in the press release.
Some advocates still disagree
Despite these and other favorable statements, it may be fair to say that some horse advocates still express disappointment in the recommendations in the report. Some also feel that their groups were not adequately represented.
For example, Heber-Overgaard area resident Robin Crawford, who was heavily involved in hauling water to the horses during last summer’s drought wrote in an email to the Independent that, “... the collaborative board had a pre-set agenda which was to remove all free roaming wild horses from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.”
“In reviewing their recommendations, they talk in circles and its not based on facts,” Crawford continued. “This is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.”
“The Heber Wild Horse Territory collaboration was typical of so many government programs that are designed to solve a problem that does not exist,” wrote Michele Anderson of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, also in an email to the Independent.
Mary Hauser, also a member of the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance and long-time photographer of the herds within the territory, says she was dismissed from the collaborative work group by ASU because she disagreed with some of the recommendations.
“The work group meetings were like sitting on a roller coaster and you can’t get off,” describes Hauser. “You just have to go the way the tracks go.”
“Mike Schoon left me a voicemail claiming the work group had decided I was not working within ‘in the spirit’ of the group,” Hauser told the Independent in a December 21 interview. “I was also met with great resistance in the meetings when I expressed disagreement with their suggestion to cull the herd to 60 horses.”
The Independent contacted Schoon about Hauser’s dismissal from the group and he confirmed Mary’s dismissal. “Mary truly wants to do right by these horses and it was unfortunate that this happened,” said Schoon in a January 16, phone interview.
“Unfortunately, I had the responsibility of relieving Mary from the work group,” confirms Schoon. “I also dismissed two other original members of the work group who were unable to fulfill the commitments required.”
“It’s our opinion that you have not been working in the spirit of the collaboration and as such, effective immediately, you are no longer a member of the work group,” said Schoon in a voicemail recording sent to the Independent by horse advocate Michelle Anderson. “All communications from our end will be stopped. We want to thank you for your time and all the effort you put in. We look forward to meeting again in the future,” added Schoon.
Time for public comment
Johnson said that the first of several public comment periods on the Heber Wild Horse Territory Management Plan are expected to occur this summer which will include a 30-day window for public comment.
The Environmental Impact Statement is expected to also be released for a 40-day public comment period this December, followed by a completed Heber Wild Horse Territory management plan sometime in 2021.
To view the Heber Wild Horse Territory Collaborative Working Group Final Report, DRAFT 1, in it’s entirety, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/asnf/HWHT. See the “Updates” tab in the drop down list.