We can protect our environment, and give wild horses the freedom they deserve.

Horses and I have had a shared existence, personal and professional, for as long as I can remember. And while I carry a strong passion for all horses, my tenacious support for the preservation of habitat for wildlife and the American mustangs derives from their symbolic representation of our national heritage and freedom.

Any infringement on their legally protected right to live freely is an assault on America’s principles. The varied and subjective interpretation of laws intended to protect these animals on our public lands, continues to leave wild horses under attack.

Recent “stand-offs” between ranchers and the federal government are reminiscent of old westerns. But this American tragedy does not have a hero riding in to save the day, and wild horses have become the victim in the controversies over our public land resources.

In 1971, as a result of concern for America’s dwindling wild horse populations, the US Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. The Act mandated that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), protect free roaming wild horses and burros, under a multiple-use management policy, on designated areas of our public lands.

The BLM manages 245 million acres of our public lands, with livestock grazing permits on 155 million acres. Wild horses are designated to share a mere 26.9 million acres. That means only 17% of BLM-managed public land are made available to wild horses. Wild horse populations vary between 32,000 and 50,000, while livestock grazing allocations accommodate numbers in the millions. Yes, in the millions.

Advocates are only asking that the horses be treated fairly. Wild horses are consistently targeted as the primary cause of negative impact to grazing lands resulting from decades of propaganda that ignores math, science and solutions that can be implemented today.

Ranchers hold nearly 18,000 grazing lease permits on BLM land alone. Grazing costs on BLM land go for $1.35 per cow and calf pair, well below the market rate of $16. This price disparity, derived from BLM’s current permit policy, establishes an uneven playing field on grazing economies. Understandably ranchers have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Although less than 3% of America’s beef is produced on federal land, this subsidized grazing program costs the taxpayer more than $123 million a year, and more than $500 million when indirect costs are accounted for.

The long-term economic success of public lands lies in maintaining a bio diverse ecosystem within its boundaries. However, understanding the need for a preservation balance in thriving agricultural communities often becomes sidelined.

The BLM needs to comply with its original “multiple use” principle in managing wild horses and burros. In light of the inequitable share of livestock on BLM land, the ongoing persecution of wild horses and those that value them is unacceptable and threatens the very spirit of the American West. I urge Congress to stand up for much needed reform of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program and livestock grazing on federal lands.

Now is not the time to repudiate environmental balance, but rather it is the time for all of us to work together – politician, advocate, rancher, scientist, and citizen. Only by doing this will the United States move forward and be a leader in environmental issues and ensure sustainability to our delicate ecosystem.

Robert Redford is a board member of Return to Freedom.

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