WASHINGTON — A senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Interior on Friday, Feb. 26, rescinded the January decision by former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to grant Hammond Ranches Inc. a 10-year grazing permit and directed the Bureau of Land Management to further consider the matter.
The maneuver came as Congress was moving to confirm President Joe Biden’s pick of Deb Haaland as the new Interior secretary and followed a day after four environmental advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit to block the grazing permit for the Hammonds.
It also came just days before the cattle were expected to be turned out on the more than 26,000 acres of public lands neighboring Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about 45 to 70 miles south of Burns.
The action marked the latest twist in a yearslong saga surrounding the grazing rights of Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven Hammond after they were convicted of setting fire to public lands and served prison time.
The new memo from the Interior secretary’s office found that the Trump administration hadn’t allowed for sufficient time to receive and consider public challenges to the permit.
A proposal to grant the permit was dated Dec. 31 but the public wasn’t immediately alerted to it until days later “resulting in confusion” about how the department would calculate an authorized 15-day protest period, according to the memo from the Interior secretary’s office.
Friday’s memo was signed by Laura Daniel-Davis, a senior adviser to the secretary exercising delegated authority of the assistant secretary of land and minerals management.
“Because the protest period had not properly concluded” before the final Jan. 19 decision was issued, “I am rescinding the January 19 Decision and remanding the matter to the BLM to allow for full consideration of the timely protests received by the BLM,” the memo said.
She directed the Bureau of Land Management to pursue additional opportunities for public involvement and “a careful and considered review” of any challenges. She also instructed the Bureau of Land Management to post notice of the rescission online and mail copies to all applicants and other interested stakeholders.
W. Alan Schroeder, the attorney representing Hammond Ranches Inc., declined comment on Friday’s development.
Four environmental advocacy groups on Thursday sued the Interior secretary and Bureau of Land Management, alleging last month’s permit approval on the final day of the Trump administration was “tainted by political influence” and that a “rushed and truncated public process” cut out opportunities for public participation required by law.
The suit further accused the federal government of granting the permit to the Hammonds over other applicants who were qualified and bypassing an administrative appeal process.
“We’re grateful that the new administration saw right away that Bernhardt’s decision to grant the grazing permit without the proper public participation could not stand,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, one of the four groups that filed the suit. “We believe when they reconsider the proposed action, they’ll realize there were major substantive problems as well.”
Yet the Oregon Farm Bureau argued that the Hammonds’ grazing permit should be restored and not issued or taken away based on “ever-changing regulatory whims,” according to farm bureau spokeswoman Anne Marie Moss.
“The Hammond family are long-standing pillars of the Harney County community who have been subjected to continued government overreach while sustainably managing their ranch for the benefit of the local community, local ecosystems, and generations of their family,” the Oregon Farm Bureau’s statement said. “The decision to issue their grazing permit should be a criteria-based process, and one that BLM approaches objectively. The Hammonds have demonstrated several times that all applicable factors favor them being restored their permit, including the family’s record of stewardship, their ownership of intermingled private land and several range improvements, and their contributions to the local economy. It is fundamentally unfair to continually subject this family to ever-changing regulatory whims, and in the process, jeopardize their livelihood, proper rangeland management, and ability to fully utilize their private lands. The Hammond’s permit should be restored, and the family should be allowed to move forward with their lives in peace.’’
The grazing permit covers four land allotments called Hammond, Mud Creek, Hardie Summer and Hammond Fenced Federal Range and allows cattle grazing on more than 26,000 acres of public lands neighboring Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about 45 to 70 miles south of Burns, near the town of Frenchglen.
In February 2014, the Bureau of Land Management rejected the Hammonds’ renewal application, citing the Hammonds’ criminal convictions.
In early 2019, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a renewal of their grazing permit on his last day in office.
The renewal followed six months after Trump’s pardon of the Hammonds in July 2018. Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond had been convicted of arson and were serving out five-year mandatory minimum sentences for setting fire to public land where they had grazing rights. Both were convicted of setting a fire in 2001, and the son was convicted of setting a second fire in 2006.
In December 2019, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon of Portland revoked the grazing permit finding Zinke’s renewal was an “abuse of discretion.”