Hope for the Hammonds: Interior Secretary reinstates Oregon family’s BLM grazing permit

Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond can see a higher purpose for the challenges they have faced. Their hope is that the country will re-think its attitude toward those who produce food. Photo by Midge Smith

Nearly five years after the BLM revoked their grazing permit, the Hammond family, which attracted nationwide attention for their prison sentence for arson, and subsequent presidential pardon, can plan to turn cattle onto their BLM rangeland this spring.

The family’s BLM permit has been renewed, after Brendan Cain with the local BLM office refused to renew it February 14, 2014, saying that the family did not have a “satisfactory record of performance.” In the denial document, Cain went into great detail outlining alleged offenses by the Hammonds. This included the arson they were found guilty of, as well as numerous claims that were thrown out in court, and others that the court ruled the Hammonds were not guilty of.

In a document dated Jan. 28, 2019, the Hammond family, along with the Harney County Stockgrowers Association, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation, received word from former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that he has instructed the BLM to “renew the grazing permit at issue under the same terms and conditions for the balance of the renewal period.” Zinke signed the document on Jan. 2 but it was not mailed until later due to the government shutdown.

Dwight Hammond said on Jan. 29 that he had not had a chance to talk to the BLM or an attorney about the news.

“It sounds like things are in order,” he said, regarding the family’s grazing permit.

The elder of the father-son duo who was imprisoned and later pardoned by President Trump for lighting two fires that burned around 140 acres of BLM land, very much appreciates the support of friends, neighbors, agriculture and property rights groups, and those around the nation who helped bring his family’s plight to the president’s attention. And although he’s pleased with the news, challenges within the industry are much bigger and remain unresolved, he said.

“This is a win for the Hammonds but the industry still has some work to do. I don’t mind being the whipping boy, whatever you want to call it. I’m 77 years old, what are they going to do, take my birthday away?” But Dwight believes that the treatment his family has endured is a symptom of a bigger problem.

“I feel strongly that they took something away that wasn’t theirs to take. We’ve had this permit 50 years and big brother wants to throw his weight around and take it away. I’m sorry but it’s not theirs to take away. When President Trump says he wants to drain the swamp, this is the type of thing I think he means. This was overreach of big brother,” said Dwight.

“The people that are losing their permits from the wild horses, I feel terrible about that. We’ve regained our ground. I don’t see that they are going to get the horse deal understood before those people are totally out of business. What in the world is America thinking about?”

Steven Hammond is also forever grateful to the thousands of individuals and groups who fought for his and his father’s pardon.

“If I have one regret through this whole process, it’s my lack of ability to thank the people who supported us and wrote cards and letters. As simple as they were, they made a world of difference,” said Steven in his first media interview in at least five years. The bond that he’s formed with those across the country – many of whom he will never meet, but who showed support for him and his family – is significant.

But Steven agrees with his father that the challenges facing livestock production and the entire nation are much bigger than the Hammonds.

“The way this whole ordeal was decided – politically, not through the justice department – we’ve spent a lifetime making these issues as confusing as we can. We need simplicity put back in it.”

The BLM is in a tough position as well, Steven believes. “It’s easy to hate the government but there are some great people who have the greatest of intentions. Then you get some conflicting ideas and pressures, and they don’t know how to react or what to react to. I wouldn’t want that job for anything.”

Still, Steven observes that one overriding challenge regarding bureaucratic decision-makers is the lack of accountability. “They don’t seem to feel indebted to the taxpayer anymore. The idea of being a public servant has been lost a long time ago.”

But life’s too short to focus on the negative, says Steven, explaining that he gained a new perspective while in federal prison for approximately 18 months.

Some people thank him for serving as a representative, albeit perhaps a reluctant one, for federal land ranchers. “When you get the chance to sit down for as long as I did you get a perspective on life that you can truly appreciate,” he said. “Sometimes I tell people that I found something that you can’t even afford to buy. I can look at life in a broader sense and am capable of seeing so much more than I ever could before.”

Although Steven admits he would have taken a different path if one had been available, God has blessed him and his family throughout the trials and difficulties. “I don’t think there were ever guarantees that life would be easy, He just said he’d be there to help us get through it.”

Still, the husband and father of three says he wishes that life would get back to normal. “But it doesn’t seem like there is normal anymore.”

And while he loves the ranching lifestyle, Steven said there are times that doubt creeps into his mind when he’s looking ahead to the future of agriculture. “When we do figure out what we’ve got, I want to see if it’s something I even want to hand over to my kids. My dad did me a heck of a favor, letting me join him in this business, but every now and then I cuss him.”

Jeffrey Rose, the Burns, Oregon, BLM district manager, confirmed that his office did receive word on Jan. 28 that the Hammond family’s grazing permit would be reinstated.

“I didn’t know it was going to go that way,” he said.

Rose said that Hammond Ranches, Incorporated’s, permit generally allows for an April turnout date, and that is what he and the family are shooting for this year. “We meet with permittees and determine their turnout date based on range condition in their operation. I think the earliest they can turn out is April. That would be the goal, to get them out based on what their permit was,” said Rose.

The land has not been grazed by livestock in the five years since their permit renewal was denied.

BLM permits are good for 10 years at a time, so since this one was scheduled to renew in 2014, it will be up for renewal again in 2024.

Jeff Maupin, the president of the Harney County Stockgrowers Association, said he and the former president, Travis Williams, along with Wayne Smith and the HCSA executive committee worked together earlier this year to procure the services of Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen (now the U.S. Deputy solicitor for Wildlife and Parks) and another lawyer in her office, Conner Nicklas, to submit an amicus brief urging the judge to rule in favor of Hammond Ranches, Inc., and reinstate their grazing permit in light of the fact that Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond had received a full pardon from President Trump.

They received word on Dec. 26, that the Secretary of the Department of Interior had assumed jurisdiction over the Hammond Ranches, Inc., v. Bureau of Land Management case (the Hammond family’s request for reinstatement of their permit).

“We felt pretty good about it at that point,” said Erin Maupin, friend and neighbor of the Hammonds, and Jeff Maupin’s wife.

Jeff received word Jan. 28, 2019, that Secretary Zinke had, indeed, decided to renew the Hammonds’ grazing permit.

Jeff, Williams, Smith, the entire membership of the Harney County Stockgrowers, along with the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and the Oregon Farm Bureau, who both filed supporting briefs, and many more are to credit for the decision, said Erin.

The 25-page brief that Budd-Falen authored and submitted was intriguing, she said, and laid out the argument that, because the Hammonds received a full pardon, the government should be required to “give back” anything that had been taken while they were under the assumption of guilt.

“They did a lot of research. They had to go all the way back to the Civil War to find something that was similar,” said Erin. Indeed, the brief references President Lincoln’s pardoning of the Confederate soldiers following the war, and that the Supreme Court ruled in 1862 that an individual was entitled to property that had been confiscated during the war because the soldiers had been totally pardoned.

“I don’t mind being a lighting rod but I certainly hope it does more good than it has,” Dwight said. “Yes, we got our permit back and it’s a wonderful win, but it’s not what I’ve been worried about and fighting for. It’s not the big picture.”

Dwight and Steven were taken to federal prison Jan. 4, 2016. On July 10, 2018, the two men were fully pardoned by President Trump and were released from the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island in California, and allowed to return home.