In a most ironic twist in a western saga that has featured more than a few twists, the Bureau of Land Management hopes cattle from Dwight and Steven Hammond – ranchers the U.S. government prosecuted for starting range fires – can reduce a fire risk on the high desert of eastern Oregon.
The Hammond’s long-running dispute with the federal government ended with prison sentences for arson — and later inspired the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation. President Trump pardoned the Hammonds in July of last year.
On January 2, 2019, former Interior Secretary Ryan K. Zinke ordered the renewal of a 10-year grazing permit for Hammond Ranches Inc., run by the elder Hammond and his son Steve.
Earlier this month, part of the Hammond’s grazing allotment was deemed a fire hazard by the BLM – due to the fact the land has not been grazed for five years. The absence of grazing was due, of course, to the fact the Hammonds were in jail and their grazing permits had been revoked.
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 notes cattle have not grazed the land for five years because the ranchers’ permits weren’t renewed in 2014.
The wildfire risk has neighbors concerned, many of whom have sent letters to the BLM. Since the 5,800-acre Hammond Allotment has been vacant, the BLM said in its proposal that crested wheatgrass is now a “standing biomass that has reduced the health and vigor of the stand. The standing biomass has also created additional risk of wildfire spread because of the amount and distribution of cured fine fuel.”
The Hammonds were convicted of arson for two fires, one in 2001 and the other in 2006, which together burned a few hundred acres. Prosecutors, however, used the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 in calling for the two to serve mandatory five-year sentences for the convictions.
Originally, however, U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan said such a lengthy sentence “would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality … it would be a sentence which would shock the conscience to me.”
Hogan instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and his son Steven Hammond to a year and one day. The two served their time and went back to their ranch, but in October 2015, federal prosecutors asked that they be resentenced to the full five years. A federal appeals court ordered them back to prison.
That was the spark that set in motion the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Cliven Bundy who was at the center of his own standoff with the BLM in Nevada in 2014.
The Bundy brothers were acquitted in October, 2016, of federal conspiracy and weapons charges stemming from the Malheur takeover. Charges against Cliven Bundy were dismissed in January, 2018.