Fire-starting ranchers get a new blessing from BLM

The agency hopes the Hammonds’ cows will reduce fire risk in eastern Oregon.

 

Oregon ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond are known for starting fires, both literally and figuratively. Range fires they’ve set put them in jail, twice, on federal arson charges. Meanwhile, the passions they ignited in people like Ammon Bundy helped set their northern corner of the Great Basin ablaze, when Bundy led armed militiamen in an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — partly to protest the Hammonds’ incarceration. Now, the Bureau of Land Management wants the Hammonds and their cows to help reduce wildfire risk.

Last year, President Donald Trump pardoned the ranchers, ending the jail time they were still serving for lighting wildland fires that endangered federal firefighters. Then, in January, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reissued their grazing permit, and the Hammonds returned to ranching. On April 9, the BLM released a new environmental assessment for grazing on the Hammond Allotment, one of the largest of several the family uses in the high desert of eastern Oregon, where rolling hills are broken by rocky outcroppings. The BLM says cattle have not grazed the land for five years because the ranchers’ permits weren’t renewed in 2014.

A new BLM assessment states that Steven and Dwight Hammond's cattle reduce fire risk in an area that hasn't been grazed for five years. In this 2016 photo, Dwight Hammond speaks to reporters outside his home days before he turned himself in for arson.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

After years without grazing the allotment has become a wildfire risk, and locals have sent letters to the BLM, voicing concern. The agency’s plan would authorize the Hammonds to graze cattle to help reduce that risk. In many ways, it comes as the anticlimax to decades of disputes between the Hammonds and federal land managers. Facilitated by Trump’s pardon last year, it represents a return to business as usual in an area where ranching interests have significant sway over land-management policies.

BLM planning documents show a landscape transformed from over a century of agricultural use — and a reluctance to reverse this trend. More than 6,000 acres of the allotment are considered priority habitat for the greater sage grouse, a declining species that serves as a litmus test for the health of sagebrush ecosystems. But the BLM sidesteps habitat concerns in the planning because most of the bird’s habitat has already been altered by decades of grazing and seeding invasive species. The document says grazing could now benefit the sage grouse by reducing wildfire risk.

Grazing impacts to microbiotic soil crusts, which can help prevent erosion, are also not a current issue. That’s because BLM scientists couldn’t find any topsoil-saving crusts. “This may be due to the complicated disturbance history of the area, historic improper grazing, and cultivation/herbicide preparation for planting crested wheatgrass,” the assessment says.

The environmental assessment also addresses whether cattle could damage Native American historical objects: “If cultural resource sites are located within existing livestock congregation areas, these sites have likely been affected during the last 100+ years of grazing,” the document reads. “Possible effects are continued soil churning up to 12 inches deep … and artifact breakage. These effects are not significant because the site integrity has already been lost.”

These admissions indicate the BLM seems resigned to a damaged ecological and cultural landscape, rather than a deep look at potential impacts and ways to mitigate them. The BLM’s environmental assessment for the Hammond Allotment is open for public comment until April 24. It’s not clear whether additional environmental assessments will be released for the Hammonds’ other BLM allotments. The agency did not respond to requests for comment by time of publication.

While Steven and Dwight Hammond declined to comment, leaders in the livestock industry cheered the presidential pardon and grazing permit reissue. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, a national organization that advocates for public-lands ranchers, applauded Zinke’s actions in a joint statement in January: “The reissuance of the Hammond Ranches’ grazing permits is the final step in righting the egregious injustices the Hammonds faced. This is the culmination of years of effort on behalf of this industry to restore a family's livelihood.” Dwight and Steven Hammond ultimately served three and four years respectively, and paid $400,000 to the federal government.

But some environmentalists see recent events as a sign that the decades-old tensions are still smoldering, rather than being extinguished. Steve Herman, a wildlife biologist and former professor at Evergreen State College who has studied the region for decades, likens the renewed permits to the acquittal of the leaders of the Malheur occupation. “I see (the new grazing authorizations) as part and parcel of all those acquittals. It says to me that, you can make death threats … you can start fires, and you’re going to be rewarded not in this case with acquittal, but with a great big package of privilege.”

Idaho-based activist Katie Fite of the environmental group Wildlands Defense speculated that the 2016 occupation, paired with Trump’s pardon, sends a message about how public lands are managed in the region. “In eastern Oregon, throw in the whole Bundy Malheur refuge seizure and BLM is going to be treading very, very carefully not to upset ranchers.”

Tay Wiles is a correspondent for High Country News and a freelance reporter. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...