Ranching Standoff (copy)

Rancher Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 2, 2016. The BLM issued a proposed decision on Dec. 31 to restore grazing rights to Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted in 2012 of intentionally setting fires on public land in Oregon.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has proposed to award grazing privileges to Burns, Oregon, ranchers who lost their permits in 2014 and served prison time for committing arson on public lands.

The BLM’s proposed decision, issued on Dec. 31, awards permits for Hammond Ranches to graze on approximately 26,000 acres of public land within four allotments.

“It is (our) proposed decision that Hammond Ranches Inc. will be apportioned all available forage in the Bridge Creek area grazing allotments,” the BLM wrote in the proposed decision. “This includes the Hammond, Hammond FFR, Mud Creek and the Hardie Summer allotments.”

Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds Project, which is based in Laramie, Wyoming, said Monday his organization plans to file a protest, and if that protest is denied, he anticipates the case will end up in federal court.

Molvar believes the 15-day protest period is far too short, motivated by the need to finalize the decision before the Trump administration leaves office.

“We don’t have any illusions our protest will make any difference because we think the fix is in,” Molvar said. “This is a pure political power play by an administration that has repeatedly gone to bat for these particular public lands grazing offenders.”

Hammond Ranches had its grazing permits revoked in 2014, due in large part to several incidents of arson. Burning the landscape may lead to regrowth of grasses for cattle but destroys shrubs that are important to wildlife, Molvar said. For their role in the arson cases, ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were sentenced to a five-year federal prison term.

During their trial, the Associated Press reported witnesses testified that a 2001 arson fire occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally killed deer on BLM land. During the Hammonds’ trial, witnesses testified that a 2001 arson fire occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered deer on BLM property. One said Steven Hammond handed out matches with instructions to “light up the whole country.”

Dwight and Steven Hammond both served about three years of the term before President Donald Trump issued them pardons in the summer of 2018.

The Hammonds’ sentences inspired the 2016 armed occupation of eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by protesters. One occupier was killed when Oregon State Police shot him, claiming he had reached for a pistol while at a roadblock, the AP reported. The Hammonds had an appeal of the revocation of their grazing rights pending when in January of 2019, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke assumed control of the case and unilaterally ordered that their permits be restored.

Molvar’s organization challenged Zinke’s decision, arguing the Hammonds had not been in good standing with their grazing permits for committing arson and otherwise violating the terms of their lease. A federal judge agreed and overturned Zinke’s decision.

“Clearly this decision is trying to duck the BLM’s obligation to establish that the Hammonds are grazing permittees who followed the rules,” Molvar said.

Molvar noted that other ranchers are also interested in obtaining the grazing permits that the BLM has proposed to award to the Hammonds.

The BLM listed several reasons for selecting the Hammonds including “extensive historic use of these allotments, past proper use of rangeland resources, a high level of general need and advantages conferred by topography.”

The proposed decision did not address the arson cases, and BLM officials declined to comment on the Hammonds’ history.