Another year, another Hammond permit takedown! 

March 1, 2021
Krumbo Creek, Photo by Paul Ruprecht/WWP
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Last Thursday, Western Watersheds Project and our allies filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management for unlawfully awarding a new grazing permit to Hammond Ranches, Inc., a notorious ranching family with ties high up in the Trump Administration. In perhaps the fastest victory we’ve ever achieved, on Friday, Biden’s Interior rescinded the decision at issue in the lawsuit, pulling back the last-minute permit granted on former Secretary Bernhardt’s last day in office, January 19, 2021.

The Hammonds originally lost their grazing permit in 2014 when their ten-year permit to graze public lands expired. The Bureau declined to renew the grazing permit in part, because Dwight and Stephen Hammond had been convicted of arson in two fires that torched federal lands and put firefighters’ lives at risk. In addition to the federal criminal convictions, the Bureau cited to an additional history and said the Hammonds had demonstrated, “malicious disregard for human life and public property [that] showed contempt for [Bureau] regulation of public land.” The Bureau continued to defend this decision in administrative proceedings, and an administrative law judge found, “The Hammonds pattern of starting fires that damage public lands and endangers lives is sufficiently serious to warrant permit non-renewal.” On appeal, the Bureau’s brief said, “In fact, it would be hard to imagine any rational basis for renewing public land grazing privileges for permittees thrice convicted of arson on public lands. The public interest weighs heavily in favor of protecting the orderly use of public lands from the Hammonds.”

It was a rare instance of a federal agency doing the right thing, holding ranchers accountable for the damage they did to public lands.

Then came the violent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in direct response to the Hammonds being returned to federal prison to serve their mandatory minimum sentences for their arson convictions. The occupiers, led by Ammon Bundy, also focused on the ranchers’ permit battle with the Bureau as part of their rationale. Eventually, in 2018, President Trump pardoned the Hammonds and they flew home from prison to Oregon on a private jet owned by Forrest Lucas, a friend of Vice President Pence.

That was not the last time the Trump Administration went out of its way to help the Hammonds. On his last day in office, January 2, 2019, in the midst of a government shutdown, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overturned the Bureau’s decision to deny the renewal of the Hammonds grazing permit and ordered the agency to give the Hammonds at least another five years of ranching on public lands. WWP and allies sued over that decision and won a decisive victory when U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon set aside Zinke’s decision as unlawful.

Then, in the fall of 2020, it became apparent that the Bureau was rushing through a new permit decision that would grant Hammond Ranches, Inc. new and expanded grazing privileges on the same public lands. Starting in October, the Bureau started paying lip service to public process by offering public documents for truncated comment periods in a race to the finish line before Biden took office. After claiming to have resolved 160 public protests in one business day, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt took over and issued a final decision to give the Hammonds a new grazing permit that not only would let them back on public lands but also included a massive increase in the number of livestock allowed, reconfigured the grazing allotments to reduce the Bureau’s oversight over their grazing, and allowed year-round grazing in areas that had previously been used seasonally, affecting redband trout and sage grouse habitat.

Then came WWP and allies’ federal litigation last Thursday over the Bernhardt decision. 

On Friday afternoon, to our surprise and excitement, Interior announced that Bernhardt’s decision was improperly rushed to approval, rescinded it, and ordered the agency to “initiate any additional processes and opportunities for public involvement that it may determine appropriate under applicable law following a careful and considered review of the protests.” The Bureau confirmed in a communication with WWP that the Hammonds will not be allowed to graze on public lands while the new process is underway.

Under Friday’s order, the BLM could completely change its mind and choose a different path altogether. We’re really hoping the BLM does just that, and remembers that privileges to use our public lands can’t be doled out as political favors to ranchers who abuse these special places. In the meantime, we’re thrilled that federal lands on these allotments will remain free from domestic livestock!

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