Cattlemen in southeast Oregon are quietly negotiating with the Bureau of Land Management to restore grazing privileges to a pair of ranchers serving five-year prison sentences for setting fires on federal lands.
The negotiations come as armed militants led by Ammon Bundy continue to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the imprisonment of Dwight and Steven Hammond and the federal government's ownership of lands in the West.
"We're purposefully trying to walk a tight rope," said Bob Skinner, a Malheur County rancher who is representing the Public Lands Council, a national grazing advocacy group, in the negotiations. "Our goal is to get their permit back."
In Harney County, the decision last October by a federal district judge to extend the Hammonds' prison sentences to five years, as required under an anti-terrorism law, was viewed as a miscarriage of justice.
A federal jury in 2012 had convicted the men of setting fires on private lands in 2001 and 2006 that ended up burning 140 acres of BLM lands. Dwight and Steven served sentences of three months and one year, respectively, but were forced to report back to prison Jan. 4.
Despite a long history of conflicts with federal land managers, the Hammonds are widely respected in Harney, a county of 7,000 that is heavily dependent on farming and ranching and access to public lands.
Skinner is joined by John O'Keeffe, president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, in the negotiations with BLM. The agency several months ago hired Dan Adams of the Langdon Group to help facilitate the discussions.
BLM's main goal is to strengthen the agency's relationship with area ranchers. It said it cannot negotiate the grazing permit with Skinner or O'Keeffe but rather must work through the Hammonds' attorney, Alan Schroeder.
BLM in early 2014 declined to renew the Hammonds' permit, finding in a Feb. 14 decision that Hammond Ranches Inc. "does not have a satisfactory record of performance."
"Dwight and Steven were found guilty in a criminal legal proceeding of multiple instances of unauthorized burning over a period of time," wrote BLM Burns District Manager Brendan Cain. "The Hammond fire-setting maliciously and knowingly placed public recreationists, firefighters and BLM range staff at high risk just to further Hammond Ranches, Inc.'s grazing interests."
But Schroeder said BLM's decision flouts federal law. The ranchers appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has yet to rule.
The Hammonds were unable to graze cattle on their federal allotments over the past two summers. The previous 10-year permit that ended in February 2014 allowed them to run roughly 400 cattle on four allotments -- Hammond, Hammond FFR, Mud Creek and Hardie Summer.
They've had to make arrangements to graze elsewhere, at a significant expense, Schroeder said.
"To say anything like that is sustainable -- it's not," he said.
Schroeder said he has not been party to the discussions between BLM, Skinner and the OCA, but he does not believe they have the authority to settle the permit case for the Hammonds.
Skinner said the permit decision is a policy issue that can be negotiated with BLM.
"They've already been beat up horribly," Skinner said of the Hammonds, citing the $400,000 they paid BLM to settle a civil case over the fires. The federal prosecution was overkill considering the amount of land the Hammonds burned, he said.
"The government backfires through that [140 acres] in two seconds, and everybody else does," he said. "Give me a break."
Skinner said restoration of the Hammonds' grazing permit is "very time-sensitive," given the upcoming grazing season, and that he has asked Adams to put negotiations on a fast track. The group had to call off its Dec. 3, 2015, meeting when Ammon Bundy arrived in Harney County.
Adams, who lives near Salt Lake City and comes from a ranching family, said "BLM has shown a really strong commitment to continue to work with the Hammonds and all the other permittees."
Restoration of the Hammonds' permit could temper local frustrations over federal land management and would come at a politically tense time.
Militants urge ranchers to stop paying grazing fees
The occupants at Malheur, led by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rogue rancher Cliven Bundy, on Monday held a meeting in Crane to urge local ranchers to tear up their grazing permits and leases with BLM and refuse to pay their grazing fees.
On Friday, the militants plan to hold a signing ceremony at the refuge headquarters where ranchers can pledge to join them in their anti-federal campaign. The militants believe federal lands belong to local governments, not the United States, even though most legal scholars disagree.
"Throw off the overlordship of the federal government," said Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the militants, in a recent press briefing from the refuge. "This is not just a little occupation. This is a movement that's taking place across the country."
Finicum has said he expects ranchers from Harney and New Mexico and possibly Utah to sign the pledge Friday afternoon, though he did not provide names.
O'Keeffe of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association said he's doubtful many ranchers will take him up on the offer.
"I think it's kind of a wrongheaded approach," he said. "The laws that are in place now are reasonably clear, and if we don't like them, we can work to change them."
Skinner, who previously led OCA, said that if ranchers abandon the federal permitting system, it would result in a free-for-all for access to the range.
"I can see absolute chaos," he warned.
The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association urged ranchers to follow the rule of law.
"Our members pay their fees and comply with the terms of their leases and permits," said Ethan Lane, PLC's executive director. "Cooperation between public lands ranchers and federal land management agencies is essential to stewardship of our public lands."
Local media reports suggest some area ranchers are considering taking the pledge.
"I am drinking the Kool-Aid," said Buck Taylor, a rancher who grazes cattle on BLM and refuge lands, according to an article by Oregon Public Broadcasting. "I haven't swallowed it yet. I am open to the idea."