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Salt River Wild Horse Town Hall Filled with Song, Tears, and Politics

Several Arizona politicians at a town hall meeting Sunday tried to commandeer the plight of a beloved herd of wild horses to fuel the states-rights movement.

But the approximately 350 people who gathered at Mesa’s Love of Christ Lutheran Church to protest a federal proposal to remove the horses from their home near the Salt River were having none of it.

When state Senator David Farnsworth (R-Mesa) broached the topic, the crowd members grumbled and shifted in their seats.

“End it!” someone shouted.

“This is not about politics!” several people chimed in. “This is about the horses!”

Farnsworth, who has been kicking against federal control for at least a decade, used his mic time to introduce a new organization called the Arizona Constitutionalists, which he envisions as “an army of people who want to get involved and take back our government." 

“The U.S. Constitution assigns the government about 20 things they can do — and that’s all,” he said. “Unfortunately, as we all know, the federal government is doing a lousy job at those 20 things, and they’re doing a lousy job at a lot of other things that they shouldn’t even be doing.”

The horses are a “symbol of liberty,” he said, and the U.S. Forest Service’s attempt to round them up is a symbol of shrinking states rights.

“What’s wrong is we are losing our liberty to an out-of-control federal government,” he said.

Farnsworth got flustered when the crowd started heckling him.

“Okay,” he said sheepishly midway through an explanation of the tension between liberty and socialism. “I think that’s my cue to quit.”

Republican state Representative Kelly Townsend, chair of the House's Federalism and States’ Rights Committee, who organized the town hall meeting, came to his defense: “Senator Farnsworth has a lot of great ideas." 

Clair Van Steenwyk, a self-described “Christian Constitutional Republican” who plans to challenge John McCain for a seat in U.S. Senate, picked up where Farnsworth left off. He asked the crowd to “pledge allegiance” to fighting the federal government to hand Arizona control of public lands, such as Tonto National Forest, where the horses reside, even after the hullabaloo over the wild horses has died down.

“The federal government isn’t even constitutionally allowed to own land,” Steenwyk said. “Why do we even have national forests?”

Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, the nonprofit that has been monitoring the herd for 17 years, clearly was uncomfortable with the direction the meeting was taking, but she took the diplomatic route.

“We are so incredibly grateful for the bipartisan support we have received,” she said. “Our group is not a political group. All we care about is the safety and the well-being and the permanent preservation of our Salt River wild horses.”

The crowd greeted Netherlands with a hearty standing ovation.

The nonprofit plans to present a herd-management plan to Forest Service officials on Tuesday, she said. The group wrote the plan, which seeks to balance recreational, environmental, and safety needs, more than a year ago after the Forest Service organized a Feral Horse Working Group to determine the horses’ fate. But, she said, “they basically ignored us.”

The Forest Service, which has put the roundup on hold in response to public feedback, has argued that it can’t manage the herd because the federal government does not officially define the horses as “wild” under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Now, the horses have made a popular campground their home base and officials are worried they’re a safety hazard.

“We will not waiver until he have an unequivocal agreement — a public-private agreement — with the Forest Service that is not going to be questioned five years from now, 10 years from now, or 20 years from now,” Netherlands said.

More enthusiastic whooping.

With the exception of one man who was booed away from the microphone for calling the wild horses “pests” and an “invasive species,” the next four hours were basically an ode to the Salt River herd.

While people stepped up to the microphone one by one, a slideshow of photos of the horses played in the background. Horses splashing in the Salt River. Two stallions fighting. A mare nuzzling her colt. The herd running full speed through the desert, wind riffling their manes.

Michelle Clemdenen, 51, of Gilbert, said watching the horses makes her “feel like a little kid again.”

“Somebody may get hurt by a deer or a rattlesnake. Do you know what I saw the other day? A Gila monster. They’re poisonous. Nobody’s bugging them,” she said, eyes fiery. “Horses are not pests.”

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A number of people broke down in tears as they declared their love for the horses. Several photographers who had been observing the herd for years told stories about watching mares give birth to colts and horses rescuing other horses from drowning. One woman was so moved by the horses’ predicament that she wrote them a song, called “Salt River Sanctuary,” which she played for the crowd.

“There’s nothing in the world that can compare to seeing horses playing in the wild,” said Bren Schultz, 40, of Mesa, fighting back emotion. “I can’t imagine them being gone.”

Lori Walker, a Glendale photographer, passionately echoed her sentiments.

“They deserve a territory,” she said. “They deserve to be called wild horses … they are wild horses.” 

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