Conservation Groups Swing Back at Bernhardt’s Last Minute Favor to Oregon Ranchers

I’ve been working on public lands livestock grazing issues for over fifteen years and I’ve seen a lot of terrible Bureau of Land Management (Bureau) grazing decisions. But I’ve never seen two Secretaries of the Interior intervene on two grazing decisions benefitting one ranching operation whose principals also happen to have been pardoned for federal arson by the President. It reflects an astoundingly direct level of corruption of the public process that is supposed to guide the granting of privileges and permits on federal grazing allotments.

It also reflects how doggedly the Trump Administration wanted to give a grazing permit to the Hammond Ranches, Inc. that both Ryan Zinke and his successor David Bernhardt – each on their very last day in public office*– seized control of the administrative process, stepped in and directed an outcome that had already been opposed by the Bureau and defended against by the regional solicitor.

When the Bureau decision to not renew the Hammond Ranches permit in 2014, it did so for numerous reasons, but primarily because the agency couldn’t justify reissuing a permit to the Hammonds given the grazing regulations that require a permittee to be in good standing and in substantial compliance with the terms and conditions of the previous permit. (There’s more to this story, documented here.) It wasn’t just the arsons for which they had been convicted in 2012, but it was the underlying behavior of those actions, “(T)he malicious disregard for human life and public property [that] showed contempt for [Bureau] regulation of public land.”

The Hammonds appealed the permit non-renewal and requested a stay pending the resolution of the appeal according to proper administrative procedures. But the Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA, an administrative judicial body within the Department of the Interior) likewise found, “The Hammonds pattern of starting fires that damage public lands and endangers lives is sufficiently serious to warrant permit non-renewal,” and denied the stay. Then the Hammonds appealed OHA’s stay decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), and the Bureau answered the appeal and defended its decision, stating:

“Due to the criminal public land burning by the Hammonds – proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt in three separate counts – the Hammond Ranches case for a renewed grazing permit is without merit and there is no basis for continuing livestock grazing privileges for Hammond Ranches on public lands. BLM’s decision to not renew the permit rests on a solid rational basis in applying 43 CFR § 4110.1(b). In fact, it would be hard to imagine any rational basis for renewing public land grazing privileges for permittees thrice convicted of arson on public lands. The public interest weighs heavily in favor of protecting the orderly use of public lands from the Hammonds.”

Emphasis mine. The IBLA appeal was still pending (these things can take years) when Zinke swooped down in 2018, vacated the Bureau’s 2014 decision and ordered the agency to give the Hammonds the permit, ending the active administrative process that had been underway and to which every other grazing decision is subjected. When Bernhardt stepped in in 2021, he terminated the public process governing the issue of grazing permit issuance and to which every other grazing decision is (eventually)(supposed to be**) subjected.

So the question then is, if the recent permit decision to award grazing privileges is legitimate, what was the risk of allowing it to play out past the Trump Administration in accordance with the regulations? As Suzy Hammond said in this January 20th article in The Oregonian, “You don’t suppose that was strategic?

Western Watersheds Project (my employer) was one of four who sued the Bureau and Interior over Bernhardt’s unlawful decision yesterday, and the complaint is a compelling read. If we win on this lawsuit, it will be the second time we’ve blocked the Trump Administration from awarding political favors in the form of grazing permits to one ranch, and let’s hope it’s the last time we have to.

*Let’s hope.

**The Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) as amended by the FY2015 NDAA provides for automatic permit renewals under certain conditions. Issuing new permits that change the management of grazing allotments is not one of those exemptions.






    1. Greta Anderson Avatar

      Yes! Hours after this post, we learned that the Interior rescinded the contested decision. It’s great news.


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