Yesterday (December 18) was the fortieth anniversary of the signing into law of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. It’s a piece of law worth remembering, mostly because it drew a line in the sand not to give any people special rights or entitlements but to say, “This is the right way for us to live.”
The Wild Horse act gave broad protection to wild horses and had the kind of ambitious and right thinking that our laws seldom have any more. Among other things, the law requires that mustangs be protected as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and that the departments of Agriculture and the Interior, on whose lands the horses roam, “maintain a thriving natural ecological balance among wild horse populations, wildlife, livestock, and vegetation and to protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation.”
Heady sentiments, and unfortunately sentiments that wouldn’t survive either the tinkering of western members of Congress, who multiple times have sprinkled amendments into unrelated omnibus bills and other legislation to weaken its provisions. Sunday in the Atlantic, CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen posted a short tribute to the bill and the negligence and legal wrangling that have taken the teeth out of it. He urges us to rekindle our passion to protect these animals, not only for their good but for our own.
I have come late in life to this cause, and I have written about it over and over and over and over again this year, because I believe that the way our wild horses have been treated lately by government and business often mirrors the way in which millions of ordinary people have been treated lately by government and business.
The act passed thanks to more than two decades of tireless advocacy on the part of Nevada rancher and animal rights activist Velma Johnston, also known as “Wild Horse Annie.” Credit also must go to the Congress and especially to President Nixon, who passed this bill among the flurry of landmark environmental legislation (creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act) he signed in those heady days in the early 1970s when he was trying to atone with youth over his continued waging war on Vietnam.
As we’ve seen over the decades since then, legislation protecting our fellow residents of Earth doesn’t solve the issue of protection, it merely marks a starting point for our continued care and vigilance. There are plenty of interests out there who see money to be made, typically with government subsidy, in the lands that are home to the few wild horses remaining. It’s up to us to care. And so Cohen closes:
Forty years ago, Velma Johnston understood from her decades of battle that the Wild Horses Act would mark the beginning and not the end of the story. She knew that that the law would be only as strong as the men and women who would enforce it and that it would be buffeted by strong political winds. Those winds have come– from both Republicans and Democrats– and now the big question is whether the same popular passion and resolve that rescued our horses 40 years ago can be mustered up again on their behalf.