Zinke to ranchers: Interior to “work for the people”
—PLC addresses Hammonds, land transfer at annual D.C. meeting
U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke headlined the Public Lands Council’s (PLC) annual flyin on March 28 in Washington, D.C., telling ranchers that Washington “needs to understand that we work for the people, not the other way around.”
“We’re going to manage our properties just like you (ranchers) would manage your private lands,” said Zinke, who is now at the helm of agencies such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). BLM manages about 155 million acres of rangeland in the West, and the USFWS is important to ranchers because of its enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
ESA regulations have often been pitted against land uses such as grazing.
Zinke acknowledged that Interior “hasn’t been the best neighbor,” but promised he will be holding the department accountable in hopes of restoring trust. “Secretary Zinke has consistently been an advocate for western communities that depend on the ranching industry,” said PLC President Dave Eliason in a press release. “Ranchers have been marginalized and overlooked during planning processes for far too long. We believe Secretary Zinke will bring stakeholders back to table and stand up for those that have invested their time and livelihoods into the management and improvement of our federal lands.”
WLJ spoke to Eliason, who said the meeting with Zinke had covered the gamut from sage-grouse, to wild horses, to resource management planning.
He noted that just a day before the meeting, President Donald Trump had signed a congressional resolution rescinding BLM’s Planning 2.0. The rule had been promulgated by the Obama administration and was strongly opposed by PLC and numerous multiple-use groups, states and local governments.
Despite the BLM rule having been rolled back, Eliason warned that there are still major problems happening with some of the agencies. For example, he cited sage-grouse regulations of both BLM and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) that, if implemented, would be crippling to the ranching industry. Among other land use restrictions, both agencies have called for 7-inch stubble-height requirements in many nesting and brood-rearing areas, as well as range improvements such as fences.
Eliason said both BLM and USFS indicated in their meetings with PLC that they would delay implementation of the sagegrouse regulations until the new administration gets established. Many major appointments have yet to be made, including the BLM and USFWS directors and the USFS chief. Eliason said Zinke hadn't dropped any hints as to who his picks might be, but had called himself the "Lone Ranger" appointee for Interior so far.
Addressing federal lands transfer
Eliason said PLC addressed a few hot-button federal land issues at the meeting by adopting new policies. One such issue is the ongoing effort to transfer federal lands over to state ownership and control. PLC passed a resolution opposing such “wholesale” transfers.
Federal land management laws “collectively contain a strong mandate for multiple-use management of federal lands and grazing in particular,” reads the resolution. Those laws— such as the Taylor Grazing Act, Multiple-Use and Sustained Yield Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Forest Management Act— would no longer apply to lands transferred to the states. PLC says this could result in the loss of the grazing mandate as well.
The resolution calls instead for “the orderly transfer of federal lands marked for disposal by the federal land management agencies, which can be mutually desirable and beneficial for all parties… PLC will support [such transfers] when such mutual agreement exists and where care has been taken to preserve grazing protections in the process.”
Eliason said similar resolution was recently adopted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Secretary Zinke has indicated he has no intention of overseeing the transfer of large swaths of federal land to the states.
Hammonds in the spotlight
Another matter covered by new PLC policy is that of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Oregon ranchers who are serving five-year prison sentences for having started two different prescriptive rangeland fires that collectively spread to 140 acres of BLM land. The government prosecuted the father-son pair under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carries with it a fiveyear mandatory minimum prison sentence.
The Hammond family is in the process of paying a $400,000 settlement fee to the government for other prescriptive fires, and the BLM has denied them their grazing permits since 2014.
“PLC will continue to seek and advocate for the release of Dwight and Steven Hammond,” reads a directive adopted by PLC delegates on March 27.
Calls are growing louder for the Hammond men’s release. According to a Feb. 15 letter obtained by WLJ, 13 Oregon State senators are asking President Trump to commute their sentences, calling them “victims of prosecutorial overreach.”
In hopes of preventing a Hammond-scenario repeat, PLC’s new “Punitive Prosecution by Land Management Agencies” policy states the organization’s intention to “work with Congress and the administration to exempt normal farming and ranching practices from prosecution under inappropriate statutes designed for terrorists and other criminals.”
The policy points out the one-sidedness of accountability when it comes to wildfires in the West. “[A]ll too often the … federal land management agencies fail to take responsibility when they are at fault for similar situations,” it reads, “as was the case with the Pautre Fire in South Dakota, which started as a prescribed burn and ended up destroying over $50 million of ranchers’ private property.”
This resolution is in keeping with a bill introduced in February by Hammonds’ congressman, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR-2). The “Resource Management Practices Protection Act of 2017,” H.R. 983, clarifies that if a fire that spreads onto federal land was set on an individual’s private land for the purpose of protecting that property or as part of farming-, ranching-, or timberrelated vegetation management, that individual will not be prosecuted.
While there’s lots of work to be done in Washington, Eliason told WLJ there was “a lot of optimism” at the PLC meeting.
“The feeling was, maybe we’ve got a chance to win something here.” — Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent