After a lengthy process, the Hammond family may finally have their grazing rights restored on the Bridge Creek area of Steens Mountain in Oregon, which covers more than 26,000 acres.
After Dwight Hammond and his son Steven were convicted of arson on their public land grazing allotments in 2012, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did not renew their grazing permits in 2014. In 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reissued the family’s grazing permits. Shortly after, environmental groups sued the Department of the Interior, and in late 2019, a district court judge rejected Zinke’s decision to restore grazing rights.
In the spring of 2020, BLM announced the opportunity for other parties to apply for grazing preference on the allotments. The Bridge Creek area is made up of four allotments, with each allotment containing several pastures. Ranchers had until mid-April to apply for the allotments. The Hammond family was one of four applicants to apply for grazing preference, and several groups sent letters to the Burns BLM office in support of restoring grazing back to the Hammonds.
On Dec. 31, BLM issued a notice of a proposed decision to apportion available forage within the Bridge Creek area and assign grazing preference to Hammond Ranches Inc.
Don Rotell, BLM Andrews/Steens resource area field manager, told WLJ the decision to restore the grazing permits to the Hammonds was made at the Department of the Interior level. Although unable to disclose details of the selection process, the proposed decision read that the Hammonds are apportioned the preference due to “their extensive historic use of these allotments, past proper use of rangeland resources, a high level of general need, and advantages conferred by topography.”
BLM Spokesperson Jeff Krauss told WLJ in an email, "The proposed decision to select [Hammond Ranches Inc.] was the culmination of a competitive process and was signed by the principal deputy assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management.
"The BLM’s Burns District provided application data and environmental analyses to aid DOI and will implement the final decision."
The Hammonds own or manage the majority of the private property located within the four allotments, and hold the water rights associated with the spring that feeds the pipeline in the Hammond Allotment of the area.
“Without access to water, and with water sources other than the pipeline being limited, the Hammond Allotment would be difficult for an outside operator to properly utilize,” wrote Casey Hammond, Interior principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, in the decision.
“If this spring were to be developed and feed a pipeline (as currently described in this proposed decision), it would provide off-stream water that would help pull livestock from riparian areas within the Hardie Summer Allotment, benefiting ecological conditions and better balancing resources within that allotment,” Hammond said.
He noted that no other applicant would be able to create this off-stream water source and no other applicant possesses the history on the grazing allotments.
In October, the Burns BLM conducted a scoping period with interested parties regarding the allotments, which ended in mid-November. Comments received after the scoping period were incorporated into the draft environmental assessment, which was released for a commenting period from Dec. 8-20. BLM received 10 comments during the comment period.
On Dec. 31, Hammond released his proposed decision, and the public was given 15 days to protest. Interested parties could submit a protest by Jan. 14 to the Burns BLM. After the protest period, a final decision will be issued.
The actions in the proposed decision are the following:
• Approval of the Hammond, Mud Creek, Hardie Summer, and Hammond FFR allotment management plans;
• Issuance of 10-year livestock grazing permits;
• Livestock grazing management to provide periodic growing season rest for plant species; and
• Range improvements including Bridge Creek water gap extension, fence removal, fence construction, and spring and pipeline development with associated troughs.
Throughout the 10-year terms of the livestock grazing permits, short and long-term indicators of livestock grazing’s effect on vegetation will be monitored. Animal unit months (AUMs) will be gradually increased on the Hammond Allotment, above previously authorized levels.
“The BLM is authorizing grazing in all allotments; this return of grazing will help reduce fine fuel accumulation and address concerns over increased fire risk as well as social and economic concerns,” the decision read.
Environmental groups objected to the proposed decision and Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians planned to protest it.
“Giving the permit to the Hammonds shows a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, both by the former permittees and by Secretary [David] Bernhardt, and is clearly a political move rather than a responsible allocation of public lands,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.
Sarah McMillan, conservation director for WildEarth Guardians, added, “With one foot out the door, the Trump administration is trying, again, to allow these bad-actor permittees to run roughshod over public lands.” — Anna Miller, WLJ editor