A prosecution, a standoff, and a pardon: The case of Dwight and Steven Hammond and its Pandora’s Box legacy

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon (Jeff Sorn/Wikimedia Commons)

With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump ignited another firestorm of sorts, this time with the pardoning of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Harney County, Oregon, ranchers who’d been convicted or arson and sentenced to prison.

Conservationists and public lands activists were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of this latest pardon, saying that it not only dismisses the seriousness of the crimes in question, but undermined the justice system.

The case itself bears further scrutiny, for a variety of reasons. And going forward, it opens up the possibility of more conflict, not less, between conservationists, government agencies, private landowners and anti-government activists.

The Hammonds were prosecuted for two events. The first, an incident where Dwight Hammond was accused of setting a fire to cover up the poaching of game animals on BLM land. The second, years later, occurred when a controlled burn on the Hammonds’ property encroached on federal land during a declared burn ban.

The Hammonds were charged under a 1996 anti-terrorism law. The judge, upon sentencing, disagreed with the severity of the punishment – five years in federal prison – and imposed a lighter sentence, but that decision was overturned on appeal and the Hammonds were then sentenced according to the anti-terror law’s guidelines.

This is where things got sticky. Many believed the Hammonds were overprosecuted. Arson? Poaching? Obstruction? Sure. But terrorism? That’s more debatable. You could call the Hammonds reckless. But “terrorists” is a stretch.

In any case, their cause drew the attention of the first family of anti-government sentiment, the Bundy clan. Cliven Bundy became famous with his standoff against federal authorities in Nevada. Bundy had been grazing his cattle on federal lands for years but failed to pay grazing fees. When the feds came to collect, he sounded the alarm and militia-types showed up, rifles at hand, to force a showdown. Federal agents, fearful of a Waco-style shootout on the range, backed down and Bundy got away with his freeloading ways.

More importantly, he became a cult figure in the militia movement, even gaining favorable airtime thanks to the likes of Fox News’ Sean Hannity. The shine wore off his celebrity status when he famously said African-Americans were better off when they were slaves, but among hardcore anti-government activists, he remains revered.

Like Cliven Bundy, his sons – Ammon and Ryan – hold similar views on federal sovereignty on public lands. And when these two learned of the Hammonds’ fate, they arrived in eastern Oregon, armed followers in tow, and occupied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife headquarters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

A lengthy standoff ensued. Occupiers trashed the headquarters building. They damaged portions of the land on the refuge, and generally wore out their welcome among locals who, while mostly sympathetic to the Hammonds, were ready to see the Bundys and their posse leave. The standoff ended when a caravan of occupiers was intercepted by state and federal law enforcement. A shooting ended with the death of one of the occupiers, and the rest were taken into custody.

Prosecution of the Bundys was a flop. They walked. And that leads us where we are this week.

The destructiveness of the Hammonds’ actions shouldn’t be downplayed, but neither should the opinion of the sentencing judge. For Dwight Hammond, well advanced in years, five years in prison might have had him dying behind bars. And certainly, it’s a stretch to call either of these men terrorists. And if that was not the intent of the prosecutors, then something about the law under which they were prosecuted needs to be changed. Arson in the wildfire-prone West is serious business. But you can’t lump the Hammonds in with the likes of Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden.

So you might, even if reluctantly, be tempted to view Trump’s pardon as a good thing. Unfortunately, it comes with unintended consequences. The pardon is the latest link in a series of losses for public lands advocates. That Cliven Bundy got away with his armed standoff is inexcusable, in that the law was flouted at the point of a gun aimed squarely at law enforcement officers and federal employees. His sons’ escape from justice from the Malheur standoff is equally troublesome.

And the pardon? The meat of it isn’t the problem. The perception of it is. It tells the Bundys of the world that their tactics are working. That through the force of arms, they can force their will against federal authority, and in their minds, eventually do away with federal ownership and stewardship of public lands altogether.

I don’t expect the Bundys to wield much influence in policy circles, though there are plenty of state and federal lawmakers sympathetic to divesting the federal government of all public lands (indeed, we’ve seen that erosion in full force with the shrinking of national monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase/Escalante in Utah). But I do worry that extremists are looking for another fight, and maybe even itching for real violence.

We’ve seen this movie before, though in a different venue. It was the feds against gun extremists, which took us to Ruby Ridge, then to Waco, and ultimately to Oklahoma City. This isn’t anywhere we need to go, and certainly not something we want to encourage.

But are we edging closer to that again? Instead of guns, is the next major act of violence going to be over public lands? Anti-government sentiment in the West over land disputes goes back to the 1800s, so that’s nothing new. Neither is violence. But what’s new is the potential for hyper-violence, where a heated dispute leads to a standoff, which leads to a shooting, which eventually leads to real terror, and not the ginned-up version in an obscure 1996 law.

There’s a lot at stake here. The fate of public lands looks grim to many of us, considering the current thread of public policy. But I also worry that an emboldened movement that is unafraid of violence could escalate. I’ve seen the result of that sort of conflict on the streets of downtown Oklahoma City first-hand. We don’t want to go there again. This is something that prosecutors, activists, land owners and yeah, even the president, should consider going forward.

We’re too far down the road to do much of anything to fix the Hammonds’ case. That ship sailed when the initial anti-terror charges were filed. But we do need to move toward protecting the lands we have, working with our stakeholders and upholding the law. Too much is at stake to let the lawbreakers win.

Bob Doucette

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