Oregon ranchers fight government retaliation

By Brian Williams
April 5, 2021

On Feb. 26 the Joseph Biden administration cancelled a permit granted to eastern Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven to graze their cattle on federal land. This is the latest in a long series of moves by government officials to harass the Hammonds and other ranchers who depend on access to public lands to earn their livelihood.

Federal government agencies control more than half of the land in Oregon, and 75% in Harney County where the Hammonds live.

The Bureau of Land Management had proposed granting the Hammonds a new grazing permit Dec. 31, citing their “extensive historic use” of the allotments and what the federal agency characterized as their “past proper use of rangeland resources.” The measure was enacted by the Donald Trump administration Jan. 19, the day before he left office.

In an effort to block this, the Western Watersheds Project and three other environmental groups sued the BLM Feb. 25. They claimed they weren’t given the required 15 days to protest the ruling, even though 20 days had passed since the administration publicly posted its preliminary decision online.

A day later, Laura Daniel-Davis, Biden’s Department of Interior assistant secretary for land and mineral management, reversed the Hammonds’ grazing permit.

The Hammonds have been subjected to onerous government regulations and harassment for many years. They also became the targets of a campaign of slander and lies from liberals and middle-class radicals who view ranchers as dangerous and reactionary.

In June 2010 federal officials brought frame-up charges against them for “maliciously damaging” U.S. property in two backfires. In 2001 and 2006 they had set two controlled fires on their ranch, one to protect against an approaching wildfire, a time-tested firefighting technique, and the other to destroy invasive juniper growth. These fires leaked onto federal land, affecting 140 acres.

The Hammonds’ were hounded and prosecuted under the William Clinton administration’s 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which included a mandatory five-year prison sentence. The judge, however, set a shorter sentence, failing to see what justified such a long incarceration. The Obama administration appealed, demanding the full five years. The Hammonds also were fined $400,000.

“I’m sorry to see this happen to the Hammonds,” Ruth Danielsen, a neighbor of the family, told the Militant in a phone interview March 19. “I’m amazed at their resilience to continue to stay in there.

“Some people claim grazing causes damage to the environment,” she said. “This is not the case.” Cows chewing forage “helps to control wildfires.”

In a Feb. 26 statement, the Oregon Farm Bureau condemned the federal government’s action: “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 Hammonds’ permit should be restored, and the family should be allowed to move forward with their lives in peace.”

Long fight to vindicate Hammonds

Growing anger over the discrimination and abuse by federal government agencies against the Hammonds gained national attention when a group of armed protesters, led by rancher Ryan Bundy and his brother Ammon, occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in early 2016.

The Bundys were arrested and prosecuted for their actions, but were acquitted, showing working people’s disdain for the government’s attacks on the ranchers.

Former President Donald Trump pardoned the Hammonds in 2018 and they applied for the new grazing permit. But they immediately ran into roadblocks like they’re dealing with today. After a grazing permit was granted to them by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in early 2019, environmental groups sued him and the BLM. A federal judge at the end of the year revoked the Hammonds’ permit, claiming Zinke’s action was an “abuse of discretion.”