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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Standoff at Malheur: It’s past time for the Oregon occupiers to leave

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues. (Sacramento Bee photo)

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues. (Sacramento Bee photo)

It’s been about three weeks since a group of self-proclaimed militia members broke off from a planned demonstration, drove to a southeastern Oregon wildlife refuge and, fully armed but facing no one, camped out and “took over” the federal facility’s headquarters.

The original protest, which took place in the town of Burns, was against the resentencing of a couple of ranchers who had originally been convicted of setting fire to public lands in an effort to cover up poaching. They denied that, but served sentences a federal judge later said were too short to satisfy federal sentencing guidelines. So back to jail they would go.

This upset many locals in Harney County, who felt like the ranchers got a raw deal. But what really got people’s attention is what happened after: When Ammon Bundy, son of now-famous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, took a crew of armed men to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, holed up in the refuge’s headquarters, and said they weren’t leaving until federal public lands were given back to locals. They vowed to stay for years, if need be, until they got their way.

The takeover highlights a couple things, first being the ongoing tension that ranchers and private landowners have with the federal government. When the government owns most of the land out West, it’s bound to happen, and any time you reach an agreement with the feds, there are going to be strings attached. Naturally, some landowners find common ground with the Bundy clan and their ongoing disputes with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

But a second thing on which it sheds light is a disturbing trend much bigger than stakeholder friction with the government. It looks as if there is a growing desire to make public — and armed — stands against the authorities an acceptable tactic for earning concessions on public lands the rest of us would never enjoy.

Going back to 2014, Cliven Bundy made news when the BLM finally got tired of him failing to pay grazing fees that he’d racked up over several years. His debt to the government is in the seven- figure range, and he was warned that if he didn’t pay up or remove his cattle from public lands, his cattle would be moved for him.

But when the BLM showed up to make good on its promise, so did Bundy’s supporters — a collection of like-minded folks from closer to home and a number of out-of-state militia types, armed with weaponry that you might see soldiers carrying into war zones. When the groups met face-to-face, federal workers had militia weapons trained on them, so they backed down. Cliven Bundy got his way because the BLM didn’t want some of its employees felled in a hail of gunfire.

Fast-forward to earlier this month, and it appears the desire for armed confrontation is still high with this bunch. Ammon Bundy, a Montana rancher, his brother, and a gaggle of out-of-state militia men are standing guard at their new possession, with federal law enforcement watching from a distance.

None of the refuge’s employees were at the facility with the Bundy group arrived, so the takeover was pretty easy. But they’ve taken to social media, asking people to send food, clothing and whatever else might help them endure a lengthy stay in the Oregon high desert.

A growing number of Harney County residents are ready for the Bundy bunch to leave. (ajc.com photo)

A growing number of Harney County residents are ready for the Bundy bunch to leave. (ajc.com photo)

What they haven’t received, aside from their own small number, is any real support — not locally or nationally. The county sheriff wants them gone. A Native American tribe that calls southeastern Oregon its ancestral home has been very public about wanting the group leave. Most locals are wary of their presence, and weary of the standoff, noting that they don’t feel safe with the potential of the standoff escalating. And the call for supplies has been met by people sending the occupiers packages of plastic phalluses and sex toys instead of the requested snacks. You might say the public response to their pleas has been acidly comical.

But the occupation of the wildlife refuge is no farce. There are real costs here, something conservationists, hunters, birders and outdoor enthusiasts have made clear. The Bundy militia wants the government to “give back” public lands to the people, but fail to understand that those very lands belong to all of us. Even neighboring ranchers understand this. One of them in particular was angered when militia members tore down a fence separating his land from that of the refuge, and immediately had his crew reinstall the barrier, telling The Oregonian newspaper that he has no problem working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on grazing deals.

That’s not to say that the friction between private and public isn’t real. It is. Ranching is a hard life with razor-thin profit margins, especially in the vast, dry lands of many western states. And if bureaucrats aren’t working closely with stakeholders, arbitrary decisions can turn into blow-ups quickly.

But the wildlife refuge itself has belonged to the people — every U.S. citizen — since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. We set aside public lands knowing that there is more to natural resources than what we can cut, mine, graze or extract. Diverse ecosystems make the land healthier, which can actually help agriculture. Unspoiled lands attract tourism, and thus more jobs. Conservationists of old, like Roosevelt, knew that the country’s heritage was intertwined with the natural realm.

Now that’s being threatened. Threatened by people who dress and arm themselves as if they’re going to war (I’m continually amazed at how some people want to look, feel and be seen as special forces heroes without the sacrifice needed to be given that honor). Threatened by men itching for a fight, deluded by the lie that their battles will start a revolution (you can see how well that worked for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols). Threatened by opportunists who keep saying God told them to do this, to take what really isn’t theirs alone (though shalt not steal, anyone?). While they haven’t come out and said it, the implication is they’re not leaving unless their impossible demands are met, or until blood is shed.

So far, the violence has been absent. Of that I’m grateful, and I tip my hat to federal law enforcement for learning the lessons from Waco that got some of their agents shot to pieces, then later ended in fiery horror. No one wants a repeat of that.

The only real action against the occupiers occurred when a couple of these dunderheads went grocery shopping in town, using government vehicles they didn’t have permission to use. I can only imagine the embarrassment the mighty warriors must have felt when they were relieved of their grocery sacks, cuffed, and hauled to jail in the back of a police car for auto theft. No glory in that, my friends.

The standoff is important because public lands belong to all of us, not just people with guns and free time on their hands.

The standoff is important because public lands belong to all of us, not just people with guns and free time on their hands.

But as the standoff persists and the feds keep watching, I wonder how it will end. Will the occupiers get frustrated and leave? Will the government cut off power and road access, trapping them in the compound? Will the militia mopes be prosecuted, or will they be free to go home like they did after the Nevada standoff in 2014? Or will this really end in a storm of bullets and clouds of tear gas?

However it goes, we’ve already lost something. For the better part of a month, out-of-staters with self-aggrandizing goals have disrupted the lives of the people of Harney County. They’ve called themselves “patriots” while forcibly commandeering and perverting the term. And with each passing day, they erode a part of what’s great about being an American — that we have wild places where all of us have ownership.

Bob Doucette