By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“We were working on a deal to keep the horses in Coyote Canyon,” Kat Hayden explained to me at the Phoenix meeting. “Or at least move them to a sanctuary in California. But they came and got them when we were away.” By “we,” Hayden was referring to the Borrego Valley Unit of Back Country Horsemen of California (BCHC), of which she and her husband Robert are members. BCHC’s philosophy is as follows: “To perpetuate the common-sense use and enjoyment of horses in America’s backcountry and wilderness; to work to insure that public lands remain open to recreational stock use; to assist the various government and private agencies in their maintenance and management of said resource; and to educate, encourage and solicit active participation in the wise use of the backcountry resource by horsemen and the general public commensurate with our heritage.” Of course environmentalists (I hate labels but this is the one thing I don’t mind being called — even if it is disturbingly unmelodious) will be put off by such phrases as “recreational stock use” and “wise use,” but the key word here is “heritage,” which is the essence of the battle for the Coyote Canyon horses, and of various other battles being waged on public lands by various groups with conflicting values. All go right to the heart of what our heritage is — and who controls it.
As Hayden sees it, the stripping of heritage from Coyote Canyon began in 1995 when the park closed the 3.1-mile stretch of the Juan Bautista de Anza trail that runs through the canyon. Designated as a National Historic Trail, it is the route traveled by the Spanish explorer de Anza in 1775-76 when he and his troops made their way on horseback from Mexico to San Francisco. Part of their trek took them through Coyote Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert, and it’s possible that some of their horses escaped to form the canyon herd. For years the Anza trail connected the gold, calcium, and gypsite mines in the area. The Coyote Canyon stretch was used by those who like to travel public lands in ATV’s, until 1995, when the road was closed to protect the endangered least Bell’s vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher, and the Peninsular bighorn sheep – a favorite of wildlife biologists and other conservationists. Then came the taking of the horses, for the same reasons — and more. The horses were said to have been befouling the water in Middle Willows, a section of the canyon between Upper and Lower Willows, which allegedly drove the sheep away and caused them to die. Hayden argues that it’s mountain lions — not horses — that are the bighorn’s primary problem, and that horses have been drinking for generations from Lower, Middle and Upper Willows, named for the beautiful willows that grow along the stream that runs through the canyon, bubbling up from underground springs. Coyote Creek is the only year-round water source in the Anza-Borrego, which is why the canyon is a nonstop wildlife rave. In addition to trashing the stream, the horses were also said to have been dying of thirst, due to an ongoing drought. Of course, you can’t have it both ways, and at the time of the roundup, the horses looked robust. Lack of water is among the most disingenuous arguments for removing the horses: Other animals are not removed during droughts, and if the matter were as simple as giving the horses a drink, then they should be returned after they’ve been refreshed, but they never are.
Various groups had been protesting the closure of the Coyote Canyon stretch of the Anza trail since 1995, but once the horses were gone, the battle over heritage reached another level.
Enter State Senator Bill Morrow, at Hayden’s request. Although the Anza-Borrego Park is not in his district, he has a lifelong interest in it, as he recently told me, and he often spends time there. In fact, shortly after the Anza trail was closed, he visited the park with some lobbyists from the California Off-Road Vehicle Association and was ticketed for driving across Clark’s Lake — a dry bed that is closed to cars. “I didn’t see the signs,” he says, blaming the story on “extreme environmentalists.” Yet no other animal raises such high emotions as the mustang; Morrow’s defense of the Coyote Canyon horses — and the recent, overwhelmingly bipartisan Congressional move to ban their slaughter — suggests that the fate of the wild horse is the only issue that cuts across party lines and the media’s bogus red state/blue state division. “I grew up in this area,” he says, “and I care about it a lot. My family history goes way back. My grandfather was one of the founders of Salton City. I camped in the Anza-Borrego as a kid. I remember seeing wild horses in Coyote Canyon. They were traveling in a herd, galloping, just like in the movies.”
That’s an image embedded in American DNA, it’s our heritage, and after the horses were taken from the canyon, Hayden and BCHC contacted Tom Pogacnik of California BLM and asked him to intervene, pointing out that although the feds had ceded Coyote Canyon to the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, they did not cede the horses and still had jurisdiction over them, according to the Wild Horse Annie Act. Pogacnik realized Hayden was right, but state parks held firm. Meanwhile, nine stallions had been stripped from the band and taken to BLM holding pens at Ridgecrest. The remaining mares had been sent to a sanctuary in South Dakota. Just as the stallions were about to be gelded, Pogacnik suggested a postponement, pending legislation introduced by Morrow to the Structural Resources and Water Committee, asking to have the horses returned. The committee is headed by Santa Monica democrat Sheila Kuehl, a longtime Morrow foe (and no wonder — not only does he get consistently low marks from the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, he had also introduced a bill outlawing gay marriage in California). Yet regardless of personal animosities, Kuehl and others failed to appreciate the role of the wild horse in American history and Morrow’s bill never got out of committee. (Neither did a bill to reopen the Anza trail.)