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
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.