No Grazing Permits for Trump-Pardoned Arsonists, Judge Rules

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – A federal judge yanked a permit to graze cattle on public land from the father and son whose prison sentences for arson on the land in question sparked a 2016 armed standoff between right-wing extremists and federal law enforcement.

Rancher 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)

Dwight Hammond and his son Steven were distant stars of the 41-day standoff between the FBI and armed right-wing militants that ended with one man dead. Among his demands, standoff leader Ammon Bundy called for the release of the Hammonds, who were convicted in 2012 of setting fire to their grazing allotments on public land adjacent to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where the standoff took place.

Bundy’s demands went unanswered and the two Hammonds remained in prison – until President Donald Trump pardoned them and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reissued their permits to graze cattle on four public allotments. The Bureau of Land Management had denied the permits in 2014 because of the two fires the Hammonds were convicted of starting, and their effects on sage grouse habitat.

In a single-paragraph order issued on his last day in office, Zinke cited the presidential pardons as “changed circumstances.” Bureau of Land Management district manager Jeffrey Rose then found the Hammonds’ 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, according to a federal lawsuit filed in May by Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. The groups asked the court to toss the permits until a proper analysis of the necessary protections for sage grouse is done.

On Thursday, attorney David Becker argued on behalf of the environmental groups that the public land where the Hammonds want to graze is a unique area vital to the protection of imperiled species.

“This is a landscape of tremendous ecological significance critical to protecting sage grouse as they struggle against the decline toward extinction,” Becker told U.S. District Judge Michael Simon. “Secretary Zinke seems to have acted in a lawless manner. He seems to see himself above the law, not being concerned with his department’s obligation to comply with the laws.”

Simon issued a ruling that echoed that argument Friday. He found Zinke’s order violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and because he issued it during the government shutdown, the Bureau of Land Management had only a few days to analyze the permit under the National Environmental Policy Act. Simon said the Hammonds were free to apply for a new permit, and to undergo the normal environmental review associated with that process.

In its 2014 denial of the Hammonds’ grazing permits, the BLM found that “the Hammond fire-setting maliciously and knowingly placed public recreationists, firefighters, and BLM range staff at high risk just to further their grazing interests. With the nonrenewal of this permit, the Hammonds will no longer have the same economic incentive to burn public land allotments without authorization and endanger people.”

In granting the permits, Zinke didn’t challenge any of that. Instead, he wrote that while he accepted the agency’s 2014 findings, circumstances had changed because of the prison time the Hammonds had served, Trump’s pardons and the $400,000 in civil fines the Hammonds had paid.

But none of that mattered, Simon found, because it all happened after their original permits had expired. And basing a permit on such after-the-fact events is a change in BLM policy that Zinke didn’t bother to explain, Simon wrote. He pointed out that Zinke made the evidence-free conclusion that Trump’s pardons “reflect the president’s judgment as to the seriousness of the Hammonds’ offenses.” And that during the years when the Hammonds paid their civil fines, they also received enough federal subsidies to “more than offset” the total settlement payment.

“Basing an agency decision on speculation regarding what the president may or may not have believed about the seriousness of the underlying crimes when granting executive clemency is inherently speculative and problematic,” Simon wrote. “Secretary Zinke was required to evaluate HRI’s record of performance and failed to do so. Secretary Zinke also provided no explanation for relying on the post-permit fact of the pardons, which is a departure from agency norms.”

Luther Hajec, a lawyer with the Department of Justice who argued the case on behalf of the government at Thursday’s hearing, said Friday that he couldn’t comment on the ruling. Representatives for the Department of Justice did not return phone calls requesting comment.

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