Grazing Permit for Pardoned Arsonists Sparks Lawsuit

Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Ore., on Jan. 2, 2016. President Donald Trump pardoned Dwight and Steven Hammond, two ranchers whose case sparked the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of intentionally and maliciously setting fires on public lands. (Les Zaitz/The Oregonian via AP, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Environmental groups claim the Bureau of Land Management violated its own rules by renewing grazing permits for Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose prison sentences for arson on public land was cited by Ammon Bundy as motivation for launching the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond were convicted in 2012 of setting fire to their grazing allotments on public land adjacent to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Because of the two fires, and their effects on sage grouse habitat, the Bureau of Land Management declined in 2014 to renew the Hammonds’ grazing permits.

Dwight Hammond served three months in prison and his son served one year in 2012. The government appealed the sentences and U.S. Chief District Judge Ann Aiken ordered the men to finish out their five-year minimum sentences.

In January 2016, a day before the two men surrendered to finish their sentences, Ammon Bundy and a group of armed followers seized the wildlife refuge. Bundy demanded the federal government set the Hammonds free and cede ownership of the refuge to local ranchers. A 41-day standoff ensued that eventually left one man dead.

In July 2018, President Donald Trump pardoned the Hammonds. Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reissued the Hammonds’ grazing permits, after assuming jurisdiction over their appeal of the 2014 denial during the December government shutdown.

In his order, Zinke cited the presidential pardons as “changed circumstances,” and did not find that the bureau’s conclusions regarding the Hammonds’ permit violations were in error. Two months later, Bureau of Land Management district manager Jeffrey Rose found the permit could be excluded from the legal requirement to first compile an environmental assessment and an environmental impact statement – even though the land is priority habitat for greater sage grouse.

That entire process was illegal under the Administrative Procedure Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday by Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians.

Represented by David Becker, Talasi Brooks and Paul Ruprecht, the plaintiffs say the fires started by the Hammonds damaged sage grouse habitat and encouraged the spread of invasive, fire-prone cheatgrass.

The environmental groups want the court to toss out the grazing permit and prevent the bureau from allowing grazing on the four allotments under the permit until they properly analyze necessary protections for sage grouse.

“This was political interference at the highest levels of government,” said Judi Brawer, wild places program director at WildEarth Guardians. “There are no legal grounds for renewing the permit without a public environmental review. Letting a Trump appointee arbitrarily determine who does and doesn’t get the privilege of grazing on our public lands is an insult to public lands users.”

%d bloggers like this: