THE HAMMOND FAMILY'S BLM GRAZING PERMITS-AN EASY TARGET FOR ENVIRONMENTAL EXTREMIST NGOS
Three notoriously litigious environmental extremist NGOs have joined together in filing a lawsuit to prevent the renewal of four BLM grazing permits held for over 50 years by the Hammond family, near Burns, Oregon and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The lawsuit was filed by Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Western Watersheds Project (WWP), and Wildearth Guardians on May 13, 2019 in the U.S. District Court in Pendleton, Oregon. It names as defendants the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), current U.S. Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, and the BLM’s district manager, Jeffrey Rose, in Burns, Oregon.
The permits were reinstated by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, before he left office early this year. The reinstatement followed the July 2018 presidential pardon of Steven and Dwight Hammond.
Read more about the Hammond case here.
Hammond Allotments Achieve Rangeland Health Standards
The permits in question were not renewed by the BLM in the spring of 2014 because the BLM found the Hammonds’ performance to be unsatisfactory. The decision was solely based on the fires being set, and not because of overall range condition.
The cattle number, periods of use, and AUMs (animal unit months) included in the Hammond permits have been unchanged since 1994, which demonstrates the effectiveness and sustainability of management practices in place prior to the permit nonrenewal. Over the years, rangeland health assessments repeatedly found that the allotments had “achieved applicable rangeland health standards and guidelines.” In these assessments, five standards are measured by an interdisciplinary team. Standards include upland watershed function, riparian watershed function, ecological processes, water quality, and native, threatened, endangered, and locally important species.
In the event that applicable rangeland health standards are not achieved, or when livestock grazing is the significant causal factor in the non-achievement, the only requirement is a change in “existing grazing management practices or levels of grazing use on the public lands”—NOT the termination of grazing rights being sought in the current lawsuit.
In addition, the nonrenewal decision came after the Hammonds had already served time for the two fires they admitted setting, and two years after their 2012 convictions of “malicious arson,” for which Steven and Dwight Hammond were pardoned by President Donald Trump. Both fires were ignited on the Hammonds’ private land and spread to public land. The total public land burned was approximately 140 acres—less than 1% of about 27,000 acres of permitted land.
“Sue and Settle” Equals Big Payouts for NGOs – Costing Taxpayers Millions
The type of lawsuit is standard practice for environmental extremist NGOs, which are infamous for using “sue and settle” tactics as they seek to end the use of public land for commercial purposes—especially grazing and logging. As plaintiffs, they seek even the slightest errors in the operations of government agencies, and then intentionally bog them down in red tape with frivolous lawsuits over perceived violation of National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) procedure, with no regard to actual on-the-ground range conditions or scientific management principles.
In a recent DOI Inspector General Report, it was found that during the Obama Administration settlements with environmental non-profits averaged $800 million per year of taxpayers’ dollars, which are made accessible through the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).
Abuse of NEPA and APA For Financial Gain
As with the current lawsuit over the Hammond permits, these NGOs commonly utilize a procedural technicality of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) that requires government agencies to study possible environmental effects of proposed actions prior to making decisions. The assessment process requires government agencies to prepare labor intensive, detailed documents known as environmental assessments (EA) and/or environmental impact statements (EIS).
In the lawsuit over the Hammond permits, the plaintiffs state that Administrative Procedure Act (APA) was violated since a full, public environmental analysis was not completed before the permits were reinstated. (read the complaint in its entirety here.
Interestingly, the required environmental assessment was indeed completed this spring. Read here.
Equal Access to Justice Act – A Cash Cow for Environmental Extremist Groups
While the NEPA provides environmental extremists with an easily accessible tool to further their goal to end all grazing and logging on federal lands, the EAJA (Equal Access To Justice Act) provides them with government subsidized financial support to fund their attacks. Among others, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and Wildearth Guardians have historically funded their legal battles through the EAJA and taxpayers’ money.
89% of Lawsuits Filed By Environmental Extremist Groups Target Livestock Grazing
A report by Karen Budd-Falen found that over a series of years, 400 similar lawsuits were filed by these same environmental groups. Of those, 89% of the complaints filed by WWP are identical to this one: directly targeting livestock grazing on public land by claiming that the NEPA process was violated, regardless of actual range conditions, fire danger, or input from those directly involved in land management.
In tandem with lawsuits like this one, motions are commonly filed for temporary restraining orders (TRO) to prevent ranchers from turning their cattle out while the lawsuit is being settled. The combination can effectively eliminate grazing on targeted allotments, which of course is the intent.
In the Hammond case, the plaintiffs waited several months after the permits were reinstated and several weeks after cattle were already turned out to file for a TRO. The TRO was issued on June 4th by U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, to prevent cattle from being moved to the Mud Creek Allotment.
Plaintiffs Contradict Themselves
Following former Secretary Zinke’s order to reinstate the permits, BLM District Manager Jeffrey Rose found that reissuing them conformed with applicable land use plans and was therefore categorically excluded (CX) from the requirement for the environmental analysis. However, the plaintiffs state that permit renewal decisions can’t be excluded from NEPA review unless the permit in question continues the current grazing management.
The four Hammond allotments had not been used since 2013, since they were not renewed for the 2014 grazing season. However, had the BLM renewed the Hammond permits, the grazing management would have remained current. Since the unsatisfactory performance status with the BLM came two years after the Hammond convictions, and since those very same convictions were overturned by President Trump’s pardon, it would seem that the 2014 performance status would no longer have merit.
In their complaints, the plaintiffs state that cattle grazing had “caused the spread of the fire-prone invasive weed cheatgrass. Cheatgrass continues to impair land health on the permitted allotments to this day.” They also paradoxically state “Vegetation has flourished with five years of rest, providing additional protective hiding cover for sage-grouse that breed and raise their young on the allotments during the spring.”
Fire Hazard Ignored By Plantiffs
Cheat grass is indeed fire-prone and has been likened to tissue paper as a fuel, burning fast and hot. In a brutal cycle, fire leads to more cheat grass, and cheat grass leads to bigger, faster fires. Increased livestock grazing in early spring before cheat grass goes to seed has been proven to be a highly effective method for preventing its spread. While herbicides and other suppression techniques are also used, livestock grazing is an all-natural, sustainable method. In addition, the early season cheat grass is a good quality, nutritious feed for livestock.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fire is the greatest danger to sage-grouse habitat in the west, and properly managed livestock grazing helps mitigate that risk. The sage grouse was grabbed up by extremist environmental NGOs as a political pawn in their attempts to enact their agenda via the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, after years of studies and deliberation, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service found in 2015 that the species no longer required extra protection. The sage grouse was withdrawn as a candidate for the Endangered Species List. This decision was largely due to a concerted effort by ranchers to manage grazing to compliment sage grouse mating and nesting seasons, and enhance habitat. Meanwhile, NGOs did nothing “on the ground” to help the sage grouse.
Neighbors Express Concern About Extreme Fire Hazard
In fact, prior to the recent permit reinstatement, neighbors of the Hammond allotments had voiced concern over the sheer amount of “flourishing vegetation” because of the extreme fire hazard it creates. Fire prevention was a major factor in the reinstatement of the permits. The BLM stated “standing biomass has reduced the health and vigor of the stand…(and) has also created additional risk of wildfire spread because of the amount and distribution of cured fine fuel.”
The October 2018 rangeland health assessment found that the only standard not being met was habitat conditions for native, threatened and endangered, and locally important species. BLM determined that livestock grazing was not the causal factor. Rather, BLM determined that this standard was not being achieved as a result of western juniper presence, lack of sagebrush, and annual invasive grass contributing to risk of future wildfire as it relates to the sage-grouse.
Interestingly, the environmental extremist plaintiffs state in their complaint that returning cattle to the permits would “harm the area’s special values.” We daresay that a catastrophic wildfire would do much worse than that. Considering the proximity of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to the Hammond allotments, and the potential for fire to start on those ungrazed allotments and spread to and devastate the refuge, it makes it quite clear that the plaintiffs’ supposed concern for wildlife is not their true motivation.
Protect The Harvest is working to provide the public with more details about these organizations, their operations, and those operations’ immense cost to taxpayers.
What are grazing permits and why are they important to the American West and its Ranchers?
The current Hammond case offers a perfect example of public lands issues in the modern West. Most of these issues stem from conflict between mandated, long-established, sustainable public land uses and those seeking to stop them. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website states:
“Congress tasked the BLM with a mandate of managing public lands for a variety of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting while ensuring natural, cultural, and historic resources are maintained for present and future use…To do this, we manage public lands to maximize opportunities for commercial, recreational, and conservation activities. This promotes healthy and productive public lands that create jobs in local communities while supporting traditional land uses such as responsible energy development, timber harvesting, grazing, and recreation, including hunting and fishing.”
Water resource development helps wildlife
What follows is an excerpt from Ramona Hage Morrison’s “Background Regarding Conflicts Over Western Federal Land Grazing.”
“As the West was settled, nearly all of the surface water was also appropriated for irrigation, mining, municipal and stock watering purposes. The waters most important to the ranchers however were the small isolated springs, streams, stock tanks, ditches, pipelines and wells which stockmen developed to allow livestock to graze more efficiently. As water sources were developed in desert regions wildlife populations naturally benefitted and expanded.
The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934
In the early 20th Century Congress charged first the United States Forest Service (USFS), and later the DOI Grazing Service, renamed BLM, under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, with surveying and adjudicating the long-established rangelands of the West. Grazing allotments were allocated to those ranchers who could prove they and their predecessors-in-interest had historically grazed on certain rangelands and that they owned the stock waters that arose on those lands.
Once rangelands were surveyed, the rancher with preexisting vested claims to the range and stock water was issued a grazing permit based on traditional grazing seasons and the carrying capacity of the range. Western ranches which typically included a mix of private land and federally administered grazing allotments, continued to be bought, sold and inherited; mortgages were issued for the value of both the private land and the water rights and range improvements and numbers of livestock the ranch could carry between the grazing allotments and private lands.”
Livestock grazing benefits environment and economy
Grazing permits are not only a long-established part of many western ranches and the base of surrounding rural economies, but they also benefit the land and overall environment. Properly managed grazing maintains land health, mitigates wild fires by reduction of the fuel load, provides carbon sequestration, and benefits wildlife.
Read more about public land ranching and its benefits here: https://www.ncba.org/CMDocs/BeefUSA/Issues/Public%20Lands%20Ranching%20Overview.pdf .
Public Land Ranching: An Integral Part of the West
Public land ranching is an integral and necessary part of the Western landscape, both ecologically and economically. While the majority of public land users do not have to pay, ranchers pay fees based on forage availability and carrying capacity called AUMs (animal unit month).
The BLM website states: “The federal grazing fee is adjusted annually and is calculated by using a formula originally set by Congress in the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. Under this formula, the grazing fee cannot fall below $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM); also, any fee increase or decrease cannot exceed 25 percent of the previous year’s level. An AUM is the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. The grazing fee for 2019 is $1.35 per AUM, as compared to the 2018 fee of $1.41 per AUM.”
“Welfare ranchers” or “welfare environmentalists”?
The price that ranchers pay for federal AUMs has been a point of contention with environmental extremist NGOs, who like to refer to public land ranchers as “welfare ranchers” because the fee is significantly less than the cost of an AUM on private ground. This is to compensate for the increased cost of livestock production on public lands. The difference in prices is explained in more detail here:
In 2014, public land ranchers paid the government over $12 million in grazing fees. Public land ranching actually saves taxpayers money—approximately $750 million per year—because it costs the BLM $2 per acre to manage grazed land, as opposed to $5 per acre to manage ungrazed land. According to the Department of the Interior, public land grazing contributes at least $1.5 billion to the economy each year.
When the EAJA-funded lawsuits of environmental extremist NGOs cost taxpayers an average of $800 million per year during the Obama administration, it’s becomes quite obvious who the real “welfare” cases are.
Clearly, the motives of environmental extremist NGOs have virtually nothing to do with the actual well-being of wildlife and the rangeland ecosystem, and everything to do with filling their coffers at great expense to taxpayers, rural communities, and to the land itself.
Protect The Harvest supports the Hammonds and the responsible grazing of public lands.