Federal District Judge Edwin Mecham ruled that escrow waivers containing ranchers' financial information will not be released without a full airing of privacy issues when he postponed the January hearing on the lawsuit brought by the Forest Guardians against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), according to Jimmy R. Bason, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA) president, Hillsboro.
Judge Mecham ruled that until the hearing can be rescheduled, no information from Forest Service permittees' escrow waivers obtained by the Forest Guardians from the USFS can be released to the public.
"We are really pleased that the judge recognized the validity of our arguments," said Caren Cowan, NMCGA executive secretary. The NMCGA is one of the intervenors in the case, along with the New Mexico and national Public Lands Councils.
The NMCGA intervened to protect the rights and privacy of livestock producers in New Mexico and elsewhere, Cowan said. "The information provided by producers and their lending institutions is private, and was provided with that understanding. To have it released, without even notifying the affected producers, is an unbelievable violation of privacy. To have it then be released to the public, again without the producers' knowledge, is ridiculous."
Cowan says the livestock industry will use the extra time to evaluate the new information. "Until now, we didn't have all of the information we needed. In some cases, the USFS did not even keep track of the information they provided to the Forest Guardians, and the group refused to share that information with us. Once we receive copies of the escrow waivers, we will truly know the magnitude of what we are facing," Cowan said.
The radical environment group sued the USFS to force the agency to provide them with the escrow waivers of permittees who have borrowed money against their operations, including forest permits. "The Forest Guardians have made it clear in the media that they intend to use the private information to remove cattle from the West," Cowan noted.
As a result of the suit, the USFS provided the Forest Guardians with copies of some of the escrow waivers. "Lending institutions, loan and interest amounts and collateral information were supposed to be taken out," Cowan said. "In most cases, the information was left in and, in others, even though it was blacked out, the magnitude of the loans is obvious.
"The precedent set by the government in this case will be far reaching," Cowan pointed out. "Any private information given to any governmental agency for any reason is not safe. Imagine if some group wants to publish financial information on anyone who has a student loan."
For more information about the status of the case, please contact the NMCGA office, at 505-247-0584.