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Judge Denies Grazing Rights To Dwight And Steven Hammond

<p>Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 2, 2016.</p>

Amelia Templeton

Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 2, 2016.

The Oregon ranchers whose imprisonment helped spur an armed occupation in 2016 don’t have permission to graze on federal land after all.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon rejected the Trump administration’s decision to restore grazing rights to Dwight and Steven Hammond, the father and son pair at the center of years of controversy in eastern Oregon.

In his opinion, Simon found that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overstepped earlier this year  when he ruled the Hammonds should have their rights to graze on four tracts of federal land restored.

At the time, Zinke relied on President Trump’s 2018 pardon of the two men, who were convicted of setting federal land ablaze in 2012. But Simon agreed with a collection of environmental groups; they said Zinke had ignored a pattern of violating federal grazing agreements on the Hammonds’ part when he made the order.

Federal authorities need to undertake a more complete analysis of the Hammonds’ history before granting such permission, Simon ruled.

“Secretary Zinke may not simply disregard without explanation the facts in the record that do not support his chosen outcome,” the judge wrote. He called Zinke’s action an “abuse of discretion” and noted that “it is far from certain” that the ranchers will be granted a permit if a proper analysis is done.

The decision was cheered by groups who filed suit in May to overturn Zinke’s decision.

“Secretary Zinke just decided that, since President Trump pardoned the Hammonds from their criminal convictions, that therefore it was OK to give them their grazing permits back — and that’s just simply not the case,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that sued. “The bottom line is not whether they were convicted of an offense. When you set public lands on fire that is a violation of the grazing permit term. This was no mistake.”

The Hammonds' grazing rights were first denied in 2014, following their conviction on arson charges in 2012. Federal prosecutors would eventually maintain the men were at first given too light a sentence for those convictions and successfully argued in 2015 that they should be sent back to prison.

The case caught the attention of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who led a group to eastern Oregon in early 2016. Painting the Hammonds’ punishment as federal overreach, the group took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for more than 40 days.

Though the ranchers’ future use of federal land is now in question, Simon found that their business, Hammond Ranches Inc., won’t be overly harmed.

“HRI was able to maintain its ranching operation and obtain private grazing for the previous five years when it had no federal grazing permit and, presumably, during this past year when it was allowed only reduced grazing,” Simon wrote. “Additionally, many cattle grazing operations manage without the privilege of public grazing.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.