Why the Interior Department desperately needs beat reporters

The federal agency's treatment of wild horses has been scandalously poor. But you wouldn't know it from reading the newspaper.

(Image credit: (Jeff T. Green/Getty Images))

America needs a few aggressive journalists to uncover the ways in which the Interior Department is captive to the priorities of the industries it is supposed to regulate.

Consider, for example, an unfortunate story published last month in The Washington Post about America's wild horses and their human stewards at the Bureau of Land Management.

The average reader of this story, headlined, "U.S. looking for ideas to help manage wild-horse overpopulation," likely came away from it with a grossly distorted view of the problems facing the herds, how those problems came to be, and what federal officials are doing (or not doing) to solve them. All of the appropriate voices were heard from, all the advocates and bureaucrats, all the lawyers and county commissioners — but the result was a cacophony, and not the symphony a good story ought to be. Critical context and perspective were missing from this report, as were key facts and history. The result was an inaccurate, incomplete mess.

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There is a difference between a story that scratches the surface of a conflict and something that offers valuable insight into it. The only reason I can tell the difference in this instance is because I have spent a lot of time over the past three years reading and writing about the worsening plight of the nation's wild horses, the federal government's antipathy toward them, the political and economic reasons for this deliberate indifference, and the media's casual disregard for this breathtaking breach of public trust.

What to do with the nation's wild horses is not a simple question, and there are no easy answers. But the problem is not the most complicated ever faced by our federal government, either. There is plenty of room in this country for its herds, and there are plenty of reasonable policies that could be implemented to manage them on the range if federal officials mustered up the political courage to do so. Those officials haven't — and without more public pressure they won't — because of the enormously powerful lobbies aligned against the horses. You would know virtually none of this by reading the Post story, or pretty much any mainstream news organization's story about wild horses.

The governing statute, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in December 1971, is the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. It requires the federal government to protect, manage, and control the nation's herds. The inherent contradictions between those three verbs — protect, manage, control — has caused four decades of political and legal strife. The law no doubt has saved the herds until now, but it has been winnowed down, by subsequent legislation and administrative fiat, to where the horses today again are imperiled.

The Obama administration, under pressure from industry lobbyists, has rounded up tens of thousands of horses under the guise of "management" and "control." Instead of roaming free on vast swaths of land out west, at virtually no cost to you or me, the horses are kept in holding pens at significant public cost. What was a "crisis" only to ranchers and farmers a few years ago is now truly a national "crisis." There are more wild horses in captivity than in the wild because the government has made it so.

The last secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, was himself a rancher who was openly hostile to the herds. Current Secretary Sally Jewell has either ignored the issue of wild horses or has misrepresented the essence of the problems they face. A National Academies of Science report on the horses published last year, which in several important respects was sharply critical of the BLM's policies, has been virtually ignored by the Interior Department, which won't talk about it except to mischaracterize some of its contents. No major media outlet has covered this angle to the story.

There are great, untold stories here just begging for beat reporters to dig in. Jewell, steeped in scientific training, is ignoring the advice of federal scientists. The industries pushing to rid public lands of wild horses are the very ones benefiting from far-below-market federal leasing rates. By rounding up the herds to benefit those ranchers, the federal government has made the horses welfare wards. And now the feds are lamenting the costs and looking to get rid of the animals. What's happened here is the classic American story: Money makes political power and political power makes all the difference in the world.

The intended takeaway of the mainstream narrative goes something like this: Earnest, humble public servants have run out of bright ideas and thus need the wisdom and ingenuity of the American people to help them save wild horses. There are more horses than anyone thinks, the BLM says. They are reproducing at rates faster than anyone can count. The cost of keeping them in pens is too high. "We haven't had many options," Joan Guilfoyle, a BLM chief says in the Post story. Left out in most stories is that the BLM itself created the current crisis by aggressively rounding up horses and by failing to use proven fertility-control measures.

Often left out: The lack of scientific rigor employed by the BLM in its estimates of how many horses the land can sustain; the fact that federal scientists found BLM policies are actually accelerating wild horse reproduction; the fact that the Interior Department has refused to answer in-depth questions about the report.

What does the media like to focus on? The specter of horse slaughter, which is illegal in the United States but which is occurring anyway under cover of darkness.

The tragedy of the story of the horses today, and the tragedy of most coverage of it, is that there really is a crisis that won't be solved until the BLM candidly addresses the problems it has created. The biggest failure of the Post article — and most articles on this topic — is that in addition to exonerating the BLM, it suggests that the policies now in place are the result of inexorable facts and law imposed upon officials. That's wrong. The policies that have placed 50,000 federally protected horses in mortal danger today represent political choices that could be reversed if federal officials exercised the will to do so.

Fact: There are reasonable birth-control methods that could limit the herds' population growth — methods the NAS report endorsed but which the BLM won't implement.

Fact: Millions of cattle and sheep grazing on public land at greatly reduced leasing rates arguably do far more damage to the range than do the horses there.

Fact: Almost all of this is being done in the dark, without proper legislative oversight or bureaucratic transparency or accountability.

You won't get the best answers if you don't ask the right questions of the right people. Stories like this essentially are "beat" stories, and they cannot adequately be told unless they are told by reporters who can recognize immediately when they are being fed bullshit by the sources they have contacted for comment.

There are several reasons why there are so few "beat" reporters covering the Interior Department today. Money is probably the biggest. In the same way that media organizations have scaled down their foreign coverage, they've also drawn back from regular coverage of those federal agencies that don't generate the sorts of sexy "political" stories everyone seems to like. It's expensive to keep an Interior "beat" reporter on the road all year. This beat's stories don't fall from trees as they do at the Justice Department or on Capitol Hill. It takes time to understand the dynamics, the players, and the game.

Another reason we don't see more beat reporters on the public-lands front, I believe, is geographical bias. The vast majority of the work of the Interior Department occurs, and is felt, by those who live far beyond the media centers of the Northeast. Many people back East, including many who run media organizations, simply don't care enough about the issues raised by the work of the department to commit themselves to regular coverage of those issues. These horses are so far away from the concrete and steel canyons of New York or the statues and boulevards of Washington, they might as well be dreams to some people.

This is a shame, and a lost opportunity, because it's easy to see in the work of the Interior Department a microcosm of all the political tensions we focus upon more generally in Washington. Interior is a federal agency manipulated by petty bureaucrats whose policies are influenced by special interests. With virtually no oversight, these officials directly control hundreds of millions of acres of land and the fortunes of millions of people. Oil and conservationism, gas and the environment, nature and nurture, it's all on this beat. If I were a young journalist looking to make a name, I would run toward these stories.

Let me close by making a prediction. If the Post, or any other news organization, were to focus on this beat, and hire a team of smart, aggressive journalists to dig deep into what's happening here, that team would quickly start churning out groundbreaking stories that would generate acclaim and increased public awareness. These investigative journalists would find one compelling story after another. And we'd all be the better for it.

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