Newspaper column: Pardon for Oregon ranchers just the first step

Etched in stone above the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington are the words: “Equal justice under law.”

The treatment of father and son Oregon ranchers by the federal judicial system makes a travesty of those words, though President Trump’s pardon this past week is a first step toward rectifying their injustice.

In 2001 Dwight Hammond and his son Steven started a fire on their own Harney County ranch to burn off juniper and sagebrush. The fire accidentally escaped their property and burned 139 acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

In 2006, lightning started several fires and the Hammonds set a backfire to try to prevent the fire from spreading to their crops and buildings. That fire burned a single acre of public land.

Hammonds return home. (AP pix)

The White House statement explaining the presidential pardon noted that the judge who originally sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steven to a year had said that prosecutors’ demands that the pair be sentenced to a minimum mandatory five years under a 1996 anti-terrorism law passed after the Oklahoma City bombing would “shock the conscience” and be “grossly disproportionate to the severity” of their conduct.

“The previous administration, however, filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison,” the statement reads. “This was unjust.”

That resentencing is what prompted the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in protest, though the Hammonds themselves did not condone the protest and instead quietly returned to prison.

Most of the protesters, including two of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons, were later acquitted of federal charges.

The White House statement concluded, “Dwight Hammond is now 76 years old and has served approximately three years in prison. Steven Hammond is 49 and has served approximately four years in prison. They have also paid $400,000 to the United States to settle a related civil suit. The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West. Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”

This is an understatement considering that in the five years after the passage of the 1996 anti-terrorism law at least 16 members of self-styled environmental groups ALF and ELF conspired to damage or destroy private and government property. None was sentenced to more than 36 months.

Then there were the two 2012 fires near the Hammonds’ ranch. Though started by lightning strikes, federal authorities used backfires in an attempt to contain the Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires. Instead, the fires consumed nearly 620,000 acres. No one was charged.

In 2000 the National Park Service decided to use a ‘’prescribed’’ burn to clear debris in the Bandelier National Monument area, but when winds picked up the fire destroyed 400 homes and forced the evacuation of 18,000 people in Los Alamos and shut down the nuclear weapons operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The supervisor who ordered the preventive fire, like the 2001 fire set by the Hammonds, was suspended but later retired. No charges.

A 2012 “prescribed” burn by a Colorado state agency southwest of Denver killed three people and destroyed or damaged more than two dozen homes. No charges.

In October 2016 a “prescribed” burn by a state agency in Northern Nevada consumed 2,300 acres, destroyed 23 homes and 17 out buildings and resulted in smoke inhalation injuries to four people. Damages estimated at $4 million. The state agency apologized.

A few weeks ago a “prescribed” burn in the Florida panhandle destroyed 36 homes and burned 800 areas.

Also earlier this summer, a “prescribed” burn in Emery County, Utah, meant to clear off 2,400 acres of dead timber and other fire fuel spread to cover more than 18,000 acres.

Meanwhile, after years in jail and supervised probation and a $400,000 fine, the Hammonds also lost their grazing permit in 2014.

The Hammonds have returned home, but equal justice under law will not be served until their property and livelihoods are restored.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: BLM moving forward with fire prevention effort

The Bureau of Land Management posted on the Federal Register a couple of weeks ago a notice that it is beginning the tedious paperwork process to finally do something to prevent the devastating wildfires that have plagued the Great Basin region in recent years.

The notice states the BLM will create two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)— one will analyze the effects of constructing fuel breaks that clear flammable material along a swath of land to curb the spread of wildfire and another to study the effectiveness of restoring rangeland to counteract the spread of invasive species such as cheatgrass and conifers that burn too easily. The states involved include portions of Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah and Washington.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires consumed nearly 10 million acres in 2017.

In September Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose responsibilities include the BLM, promised, “This Administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat. It is well settled that the steady accumulation and thickening of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires.”

The EISs, which are required by federal law, mark the beginning of fulfilling that promise. Comments may be submitted in writing until Feb. 20. Those comments may be submitted via:

* Website: https://go.usa.gov/ xnQcG.

* Email: GRSG_PEIS@blm.gov.

* Fax: 208-373-3805.

* Mail: Jonathan Beck, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise, ID 83709

Meetings to discuss the proposed fire prevention efforts will be scheduled throughout the region and will be announced 15 days in advance in the local media and on the BLM website.

One of the reasons for the current initiative, according to the Federal Register notice, is that wildfires tend to increase the the risk of still more wildfires — a positive feedback loop.

“In warm, dry settings, sagebrush-steppe usually takes, at a minimum, many decades to recover, even where invasive annual grasses or other invasive plant species do not become dominant,” the notice states. “Invasive species and conifer encroachment can be exacerbated as a result of wildfires in sagebrush ecosystems, resulting in an increased risk of wildfires …”

Among the concerns that will need to be addressed and evaluated during the comment period and subsequent meetings is that fuel breaks and the accompanying road improvements, by their very nature, improve access for firefighters but also for the general public, which might lead to an increase in the number of human-caused fires. Also, such breaks reduce the cover for small wildlife to avoid predators.

The Associated Press quoted Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, as saying fuel breaks are a bit of a paradox. “Fires, especially large fires, are so unambiguously damaging to wildlife habitat in general — that is the motivating factor for getting these fuel breaks out,” he said. “At this point, it’s really difficult to predict which animal species will benefit and which ones won’t. Sometimes you have to just act in light of the uncertainty.”

That cautionary note aside, we strongly endorse this effort by the current administration to protect not only the environment but also those who earn their living from the land by ranching, farming, logging and mining and those who use the public lands for hunting and recreation. We encourage our readers to submit comments and attend meetings to counter the likely resistance by self-styled environmentalists.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Firefighters battle blaze near Wells this past summer. (Photo submitted to Elko Daily News)

Think tank reaches conclusion about land grab by ignoring its own evidence

Wildfire rages near Reno.

A group calling themselves the Western Center for Priorities have come up with the most nonsensical argument yet for why the Western states should not take control of the huge swaths of land now under the control of the federal government.

In a report released today, they say the states can’t afford the cost of fighting wildfires on those lands and point out the cost of fighting wildfires on Forest Service land in New Mexico, Idaho and Montana exceeded those states entire annual budget for law enforcement.

WCP’s conclusion:

“The costs of fighting wildfires are significant and they are on the rise. Land seizure proponents across the West need to carefully explain how they plan to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to protect communities from wildfire – not to mention all of the other land management costs – without the federal government and without burdening state taxpayers. Until this critical question is answered, state land seizure proposals should not be considered by any serious politician.”

They conveniently ignore the evidence in their own report, which is that wildfires have sharply increased across the West precisely because the federal land managers have failed to properly manage the land and reduce the dry fuels that cause the fires in the first place. “Since 1960, the eight largest fire years by acres burned have all occurred since 2000,” the report says.

Graphic by Western Center for Priorities showing wildfire cost increases.

Graphic by Western Center for Priorities showing wildfire cost increases.

Another problem is that WCP only looked at costs for the Forest Service, but in Nevada the Forest Service controls only 8 percent of state land, while the Bureau of Land Management controls 68 percent.

Money spent on firefighting, according to WCP.

Money spent on firefighting, according to WCP.

An article in The New American flatly accused: “Wildfires occur naturally and have always been a part of the seasonal cycle in the West, but the size and intensity of the fires have dramatically increased in recent years due, in large measure, to the gross mismanagement of the national forests by the U.S. Forest Service and the incessant lawsuits of radical environmentalists that have thwarted all reasonable attempts at proper forest management.”

The federal government would not have to spend so much on fire suppression if it properly managed the land in the first place, allowing grazing, logging, cutting fire breaks and letting small fires burn and reduce the fuel that causes the huge blazes. States and private land owners would be more likely to protect the forests and prairies and the wildlife there.

 

 

Did a wildfire improve the sage grouse habitat?

Now here is an irony for you: It appears one wildfire near Reno actually improved the sage grouse habitat, which the Fish and Wildlife Service is itching to list as an endangered species.

According to a Reno Gazette-Journal story recently:

“It appears, experts say, that the most important habitat for grouse in the Pine Nuts — land crucial for both mating and as summer stomping grounds — was spared. And in an irony of sorts, the damaging fire may have helped ease one of the other biggest threats faced by the bi-state sage grouse, the continuing intrusion of pinyon-juniper forests into the sagebrush-dominated landscape needed by the bird.”

Everyone has known for years that the invasive pinyon and juniper deplete grouse habitat but no one has done anything about it. The fire did.

Of course, if the winds had blown the other way sagebrush would have been destroyed.

 

One-note Harry is getting downright monotonous

Fire behind Red Rock visitor center. (R-J photo

Fire behind Red Rock visitor center. (R-J photo

Got a problem? Harry’s got a scapegoat.

Bad breath? Blame climate change.

Flooding? Global warming.

Drought? Climate change.

Wildfires? You guessed it.

“The West is burning,” Harry Reid told reporters, according to a Review-Journal account. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a fire in the Spring Mountains, Charleston range like we just had.

“Why are we having them? Because we have climate change. Things are different. The forests are drier, the winters are shorter, and we have these terrible fires all over the West. … We have climate change. It’s here. You can’t deny it. Why do you think we are having all these fires?”

Reid, Nevada’s senior senator, was talking about the nearly 30,000-acre Carpenter 1 Fire that swept through the Spring Mountains from Trout Canyon to Kyle Canyon, threatening dozens of homes and costing $17 million to fight.

That, according to a Las Vegas Sun account, is almost equal to the state forestry division’s annual fire prevention budget, which is federally funded. The paper said the budget is being cut from $19 million this past year to $7 million this next fiscal year.

Pay no attention to any of that. Blame it on climate change.

Nor pay any heed to the fact that in 1968 the Interior and Agriculture departments ended the decades long practice of prescribed burns to reduce the underbrush and other flammable contributors to fires or that since then the annual acreage burned in wildfires has grown exponentially.

Before 1980, less than 25,000 acres of Nevada burned in wildfires each year. The acreage has now increased to more than 600,000 acres each year.

But pay no attention to the fact there has been no appreciable global warming in 15 years.

Also, pay no heed to the fact that all the “green” energy backers are huge contributors to Harry Reid. That is merely coincidence.

While Harry was blaming every sniffle experienced by those living near the Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant on pollution from the burning coal, it made no difference that the smokestacks met all state and federal clean air standards and the real pollution was from blowing dust.

Harry managed to get the state Legislature to shut it down early and make the ratepayers pick up the tab.