Distrust of federal land agencies escalates with conviction of Oregon ranchers

Ranchers in the West are engaged in 21st-century range wars, but their adversaries are not the rustlers and cattle barons of lore. Federal land management agencies, overzealous officers, and self-righteous judges are the foes western ranchers fear the most.

On October 7, father and son ranchers from Oregon, Dwight, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, were labeled as terrorists and sentenced to five years in federal prison under anti-terrorism laws. In 2001, a fire set by the Hammonds to eliminate overgrown sagebrush on their own property inadvertently spread to adjacent BLM land. The two were convicted of arson when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) accused them of using fire to destroy federal property. In 2006 Steven Hammond was again convicted of arson when he set several “backfires” on his ranch which burned nearby public acreage. Without seeking permission from the BLM, Hammond was attempting to save the ranch’s winter feed by setting prescriptive fires.

Over the decades, since it was established in 1946, the BLM has gained a reputation for failing to cooperate with landowners and ranchers when it comes to issuing permits for various activities such as grazing, burning, etc. The Hammonds bought their ranch in 1964 and had grazing rights on adjacent BLM and Fish & Wildlife (FWS) lands. Their grazing land was cut in half when, in 1994, BLM and FWS revoked their grazing permits without explanation.

Although the Hammonds’ preventative burns spread to adjacent federally-managed property, no lives were threatened and the damage was primarily to open range. According to Erin Maupin, a former BLM range technician and watershed specialist, the fires set by the Hammonds were not acts of arson at all, but were beneficial to the health of the local rangelands. In a Fence Post article about events leading to the Hammonds’ conviction, Maupin’s expert opinion was cited:

Prescribed burns on federal land in their area have all but stopped due to pressure from “special interest groups,” Maupin said. As a result, wildfires now burn much hotter due to a “ladder” of material on the ground -- grass, brush and trees.

“The fires now burn really hot and they sterilize the ground. Then you have a weed patch that comes back.”

Maupin said planned burning in cooler weather like the Hammonds chose to do improves the quality of the forage, and makes for better sage grouse habitat by removing juniper trees that suck up water and house raptors – a sage grouse predator.

In 2012, after years of legal wrangling, the father and son agreed to a plea deal saying they would not appeal whatever sentences were handed down to them at that time. Both Hammonds were sentenced to federal prison and the elder Dwight served 3 months and son Steven served 11. But the Obama Justice Department chose to review the case and concluded the minimum 5-year sentence under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act should have been applied. The infamous Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California went along with the Obama Justice Department and last month slapped the father son with the extended sentences. 

This action by the Obama Justice Department lit a wildfire of anger and indignation of its own. In response, Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said to Tri-state Livestock News:

“BLM accused the Hammonds of endangering lives, but a jury found they did not. Saying they ‘intentionally’ set fire to public land or threatened lives is not what the jury concluded. Federal attorney Billy Williams is wrong in his overblown statements in court yesterday. But he has helped frame the debate as we start to look at BLM’s own actions. If Williams’ rhetoric is the standard, BLM will have a lot of explaining to do, far beyond what they’ve done in this case.”

But the Hammonds are just one family prosecuted, and apparently persecuted, by overzealous BLM officials with too much power and too little accountability. The Bundy Ranch standoff, which was covered extensively and wildly mischaracterized by national media, also resulted from the arbitrary withdrawal by the BLM of grazing permits.

Byond the grazing land question, the BLM is charged with managing populations of wild horses and burros in the West. The agency’s failure to graze the horses properly or control their numbers has proven devastating to many ranchers and farmers. Kevin Borba of Nevada is facing complete loss of his ranch and the cattle it is supposed to support because the BLM allows wild horse herds in the area to become overpopulated. The agency rounds up the scattered herds and relocates them on property where Borba owns grazing rights for his cattle. As a result of neglect and pressure from “animal rights” groups, the horses overbreed and overgraze the range leaving no food for themselves or the cattle. Borba has sold off most of his cattle while watching wild horses suffer and starve on federal lands which can’t support their burgeoning numbers.

It’s impossible to detail all instances of overreach, overreaction, and corruption on the parts of federal bureaucrats working for the BLM and its sister agencies, FWS, U.S. Forest Service, National Parks Service, etc., but it’s become business-as-usual for ranchers, farmers, and those who desire unimpeded access to federally-managed lands in western states. Controlling human access to public lands through road closures is a common practice of the BLM. And in states where it controls the leasing process for oil and gas or mineral exploration on public lands, the BLM makes efforts to drill or mine infuriatingly slow, or impossible.

In a Pew poll released this week it’s revealed that less than 1 in 5 Americans trust the federal government always or most of the time. With federal agents exercising their power to turn minor errors into federal crimes, striking fear into the hearts of ordinary citizens in the West, it’s no wonder the government is an object of distrust.

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