PORTLAND, Ore.― Conservations groups filed suit today challenging former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s order to renew grazing permits for Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. Zinke’s January 2019 order, one of his last official acts, came despite the Bureau of Land Management’s 2014 decision to cancel the Hammonds’ privilege to graze on public lands following a series of arson fires.
Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., says Zinke’s order violates federal rules that require permittees to have a “satisfactory record of performance” in accordance with the terms and conditions of the grazing permit. The permit renewal also waived environmental review, violating federal laws that require such analysis before permits can be issued.
“Secretary Zinke hijacked the public process for political reasons and ordered the local land managers to go against their own judgment and renew the grazing permit for public land permittees who had violated federal regulations,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “The American public deserves better than management-by-decree, and we’re asking the court to order the agency back to the drawing board to ensure the decision complies with federal law.”
Zinke said his order was based in part on President Trump’s July 2018 pardon of the father and son. The lawsuit says that Zinke misinterpreted the effect of the presidential pardon, which did not change the facts underlying the Hammonds’ convictions. The pardon does not negate evidence that the Hammonds’ conduct violated federal regulations and the terms of their permit, which makes them ineligible to renew their permit.
“It’s appalling to watch the Trump administration make up the rules as they go along,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ve seen this type of lawlessness infect all aspects of public lands management under Trump, and we’re going to fight it. The public lands at stake are important sage-grouse habitat, highly vulnerable to invasive species, and are just beginning to recover.”
The BLM canceled the Hammonds’ grazing permit in 2014 after the agency determined they didn’t qualify for a renewal based on a lack of “satisfactory record of performance.” Among other things, the permittees were found to have set a series of fires on federal lands without authorization and interfered with firefighters, leading to federal court convictions in 2012.
As an administrative appeal was wending its way through the Interior Department, Zinke ordered the decision be transferred to his jurisdiction. On January 2, during the government shutdown, Zinke reversed the BLM’s 2014 decision and decided to renew the Hammonds’ grazing permit.
“This was political interference at the highest levels of government,” said Judi Brawer, wild places program director at WildEarth Guardians. “There are no legal grounds for renewing the permit without a public environmental review. Letting a Trump appointee arbitrarily determine who does and doesn’t get the privilege of grazing on our public lands is an insult to public lands users.”