On the Trump administration’s last full day in office, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reached down into the Bureau of Land Management, seized control of the decision-making process for four Oregon grazing allotments, and issued new permits to Hammond Ranches, Inc., the same family that lost their grazing privileges to these allotments in 2014 for violating the terms and conditions that govern the leasing of federal lands for livestock grazing.
It was the latest move in a long saga of crimes, some alleged and others proven, surrounding the Hammonds.
In 1994, Refuge manager Forrest Cameron had revoked Hammond’s ability to graze livestock on the National Wildlife Refuge, and Dwight Hammond ignored the decision. Hammond was then allegedly involved in sabotaging heavy equipment used to build a fence to keep his cattle off the Refuge, and was subsequently arrested on felony charges. In response, a group of 500 angry ranchers gathered in Burns, Oregon at a rally organized by a Sagebrush Rebellion group, and urged attendees to harass federal officials by calling them at their homes. According to accounts of the time, Hammond personally threatened to shoot Cameron, one of many threats of violence suffered by government land managers during that period. Federal law enforcement backed down, reduced the felony charges to misdemeanors and then postponed the trial indefinitely, and ultimately dropped the charges altogether. Steven was then convicted in 2000 of interfering unlawfully with hunters, and later would be convicted of forging a landowner’s preference hunting document.
It was an eerie prequel to the Bundys’ Malheur misadventure two decades later.
In 2004, the Hammonds moved to block the state of Oregon from granting Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a water right for diverting water during early spring, when the water was unusable by the agriculture industry, in order to create wetlands for waterfowl. Also in 2004, Steven Hammond was accused of child abuse regarding his teenaged nephew, who later became a witness in the arson trial.
But it was the crime of arson that would land the Hammonds in prison, based on two separate public land fires the ranchers set in 2001 and 2006. Witnesses alleged that the 2001 Hardie-Hammond fire was set to cover up evidence of deer poaching. The Hammonds also set an unauthorized fire on public lands “to provide feed for his cattle” during the 2006 Krumbo Butte fire, and their blaze threatened the safety of firefighters nearby. In 2012, Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted by a jury of their peers for these two incidents of arson, and the judge gave them light prison sentences, unlawful under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which governs arson on federal lands. During the arson conviction proceedings, the BLM revoked the Hammonds’ grazing permit “because Hammond Ranches, Inc. does not have a satisfactory record of performance,” citing the arsons and other events. Then, in 2015, an appeals judge overturned the criminal sentences, and the Hammonds were re-sentenced in 2015 to the mandatory minimum of five years in prison.
In January 2016, Ammon and Ryan Bundy and a heavily-armed group of militants occupied the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in reprisal for the Hammonds’ return to prison. It was an opportunity for the Bundy clan to take their public lands extremism show on the road, after a 2014 incident in Nevada where their father, Cliven Bundy organized an armed insurrection to halt the removal of trespass cattle from closed public lands. At first, the Hammonds distanced themselves from the Malheur insurrectionists, but after the occupiers set up their own ‘Common Law Grand Jury’ to target local officials for prosecution, Susie Hammond signed on as a participant in the proceedings. As the Bundy occupation of Malheur dragged on, federal employees faced renewed threats from the occupiers. After 40 days and law enforcement pressure, the final holdouts surrendered.
A dozen of the occupiers pled guilty, mostly receiving probation or house arrest. A few served serious jailtime. Federal prosecutors ultimately charged the Bundy ringleaders with only a single charge of conspiracy, and the occupiers ultimately were acquitted on the conspiracy charge, an outcome widely seen as a miscarriage of justice resulting from a botched prosecution.
Protect the Harvest, an agriculture lobbying group, formally appealed to President Trump for a pardon from the Hammonds, which Trump granted in 2018, belatedly giving the Malheur insurrectionists the foremost item on their wish list. The Hammonds were flown home from prison in a private jet belonging to Lucas Oil, a corporation owned by Forrest Lucas, founder of Protect the Harvest and a billionaire campaign donor with close ties to Vice President Mike Pence.
But while a pardon gets the recipient out of prison, it does nothing to expunge guilt for the original crime. When Secretary Ryan Zinke attempted to re-issue the Hammonds their revoked grazing permit on his last day in office, Western Watersheds Project and allies sued. The judge initially allowed limited grazing in 2019, but ultimately revoked the new grazing permit, ruling that Zinke failed to make a requisite finding that the Hammonds had a satisfactory record of performance. And in 2021, on his last day in office (“You don’t suppose that was strategic?” Susie Hammond quipped), Interior Secretary Bernhardt attempted to issue the Hammonds a new grazing permit, and he too was unable to make a finding of satisfactory performance. Indeed, during the restricted 2019 grazing season, Hammond Ranches grazed twice the number of cattle-days that they were permitted.
The Hammonds are unquestionably bad actors. But beyond being unfit to graze their cattle on public lands based on their track record of violations, the Hammonds are symbols of a much bigger problem. The failure of government agencies and law enforcement to hold white, male, privileged good old boys like the Hammonds accountable for illegal behavior led directly, in a straight line, from the Hammonds’ early aggressions at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to the showdown at Bunkerville, to the Bundys’ armed occupation of Malheur, and then to the January 6th riots aimed at toppling our democracy.
Once upon a time, we were reluctant as a society to label white people as domestic terrorists, even while they were responsible for the majority of our domestic terrorism incidents. Those days are gone. It’s time for law enforcement to apply equal justice under the law, and hold violators accountable for lawless actions, damage to public lands, and undermining the public interest. Revoking the Hammonds’ grazing permit would be a good place to start.