On Jan. 2, on his last day as the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke dealt a parting blow to our public lands by ordering the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reinstate the grazing permits of notoriously lawbreaking livestock-permit holders Dwight and Steven Hammond of Oregon’s high desert.
The BLM had declined to renew the Hammonds’ grazing permit in 2014, after they were convicted of arsons on public lands to increase forage for their cattle. The arsons endangered firefighters and recreationists, and burned up sage-grouse habitats. By illegally lighting fires on public land, destroying habitat, and other actions, the father and son violated the terms and conditions of their grazing permit. Under federal regulations, livestock permittees are required to have a “satisfactory record of performance” in order to have their permits renewed. The Hammonds gave the BLM a long list of reasons why they didn’t qualify.
Most Americans never heard about the Hammonds until their sentence to federal prison for arson became the pretext for the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed extremists. After that insurrection fizzled, multimillionaire Forrest Lucas initiated a campaign to get the Hammonds out of federal prison early through a presidential pardon. Lucas, who founded the anti-conservation activist group Protect the Harvest, enjoyed a cozy relationship with Vice President Mike Pence that positioned him well to seek special favors. In addition, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association lobbied Secretary Zinke directly to secure a pardon, and in response Secretary Zinke promised that “he would give his blessing to the president.”
President Donald Trump issued that pardon last year, and in July Lucas sent his private jet to pick up the Hammonds from California prison.
Federal public lands belong to all Americans, not to ranchers who rent the grass, or oil companies that lease the minerals or any other commercial interest that seeks to profit from the extraction of publicly owned resources. Under multiple-use laws, federal lands must also be managed for recreation, watershed protection, wilderness and wildlife habitats. And, according to federal regulation, livestock grazing is (and always has been) a privilege, not a right.
Cattle damage public lands, and as cattle grazing intensity increases, so does an invasive weed called cheatgrass. Native to Eurasia and spread by domestic livestock, this annual weed outcompetes native grasses for water and soil nutrients when lands are degraded, and is extremely flammable after it dies each year. When cheatgrass burns, the fires wipe out the sagebrush that sage-grouse, pronghorn and other sensitive wildlife need to survive. On the Hammond grazing leases, the combination of heavy cattle grazing and fires caused cheatgrass infestations so severe that they remain a serious land-management problem today, even after five years of rest from livestock grazing.
Hammond Ranches has since appealed to reinstate its expired grazing permit. A federal administrative judge denied its request to continue grazing while the appeal was pending.
During the appeals process, the Harney County Stockgrowers Association, represented by Karen Budd-Falen, filed an amicus brief supporting the reinstatement of grazing privileges. Budd-Falen has been pushing county takeover of public-land management, urging county governments to draft land-use plans maximizing logging, mining and livestock grazing in an attempt to force BLM to adopt these priorities. She presently serves as deputy solicitor for fish and wildlife in the Department of the Interior, overseeing the endangered species protections that she vocally sought to undermine throughout her career as a lawyer.
Then, in the midst of the government shutdown (and on the day after Christmas), Secretary Zinke personally seized control. On his last day in office, he overturned BLM’s decision not to renew that Hammonds’ grazing permit and directed BLM to reissue the permit on the same terms and conditions, despite the Hammonds’ record of violations.
Zinke’s order to reinstate the Hammond Ranches’ grazing permits will now receive the scrutiny of judicial oversight. The conservation groups Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians filed suit in federal court in Portland this week challenging Zinke’s order. Like any other renter, grazing permit holders who violate the terms of their leases deserve to be evicted. A successful outcome in this lawsuit would clean up some of Secretary Zinke’s last dealings during the time when he was charged with the stewardship of America’s public lands.