Hammonds report to prison over protests of fellow Oregon residents and Bundy-led “militia” | TSLN.com

Hammonds report to prison over protests of fellow Oregon residents and Bundy-led “militia”

True to their words, Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond turned themselves in peacefully Jan. 4, to complete their 5-year prison sentences.

Video footage showed 74 year-old Dwight hugging his wife of 55 years, Susie, then their son Steven hugging his mother before Dwight and Steven reported for their prison sentence.

While the Hammond family appeared cool and calm despite the imminent jail time, their community and many around the country are fired up.

The story

The father and son who ranch on the Steens Mountain of Eastern Oregon with their familes were convicted in 2012 of lighting two fires on their private property that ended up burning a total of about 140 acres of BLM ground between the two fires. No property was damaged and a range scientist testified under oath that the fire improved the condition of the BLM rangeland.

According to the Burns Times-Herald, the Hammonds were originally indicted on 19 counts by a grand jury in June 2010, but a superseding indictment reduced the counts to nine. On Friday, June 22, 2012, a jury found Dwight guilty of one count and Steven guilty of two counts.

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Gerri Badden, public information officer with the U.S. Attorney's office, said the Hammonds were charged with and found guilty of "Use of Fire to Damage and Destroy Property of the US," a violation of the 1982 Anti-Arson Act, 18 USC 844(f)(1). "That sentencing provision of that Act was amended in 1996 by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which amended the sentencing provision from a maximum of 20 years to a mandatory minimum of 5 years to a maximum of 20 years. The 1996 Act was not restricted to just 'terrorists' but amended the habeas corpus rights for all criminal defendants and the enhanced penalty under 18 USC 844(f)(1) was also passed by Congress to help protect firefighters regardless of the arsonist's motive. The 1996 law would affect defendant who committed an act of domestic terrorism or eco-terrorism and non-terrorist who committed an arson without a terrorist motive."

The 1996 act was passed in response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six and injured more than 1,000 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168 and injured 680 more. It was passed with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The Act drew some criticism for changing habeas corpus law, limiting defendants' rights to appeal.

At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said, "I am not going to apply the mandatory minimum and because, to me, to do so under the Eighth Amendment would result in a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here. And with regard to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, this sort of conduct could not have been conduct intended under that statute." He continued, "It would be a sentence which would shock the conscience to me." Dwight was sentenced to three months in prison and three years supervised release. Steven was sentencted on two different counts, to one year and one day in prison for each, to be served concurrently, followed by three years of supervised release. He served 11 months. Judge Hogan ended his 39-year career and retired the day of the sentencing.

The Hammonds, who have operated on that ranch for over 50 years, were also required to pay the BLM $400,000 for fire suppression costs, an estimated 40 percent of the total costs, Badden said. Hogan, at the initial sentencing in 2012, said the damages from the fires might amount to a value of $100, but any restitution was being handled in civil proceedings.

In 2014, Rhonda Karges, BLM field manager, denied the Hammonds' renewal of the grazing permit they had held since 1964. "As for grazing rights, they expired by their own terms," Badden said. "When the Hammonds re-applied for a permit it was denied based on their conduct and convictions." In the document refusing renewal of the permit, Klages also references an alleged poaching incident, which the Hammonds were never convicted of. Also in 2014, Karges filed the appeal seeking the full five-year prison sentence. Karges' husband manages the Malheur Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the Hammond ranch. According to Erin Maupin, former neighbor and past BLM watershed specialist, employees of the wildlife refuge drained a waterhole that had provided water to one of the Hammonds' BLM permits, rendering it unusable.

Following the appeal, in October of 2015 Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken re-sentenced the two men, handing them the minimum 5-year prison term, less time served.

Neighbors, U.S. Attorney speak out

Friends, neighbors and concerned strangers participated in a march of support Saturday, Jan. 2 for the Hammonds that included around 300-400 people in the town of Burns, which has a population of about 3,000.

"The march was excellent," Maupin said. "It brought attention to the Hammond situation, it showed solidarity within the United States. It was very peaceful. I don't think I ever heard anyone use foul language or anything like that. We sang the national anthem at the beginning, prayed, and we marched up to Dwight and Susie's house."

Maupin explained that the march included a number of local residents, and folks from all across the country. "Since the Hammonds were tried and convicted of a federal crime, this sets a precedent not only for those of us in Harney County but it affects everyone within the borders of the United States."

Some marchers tossed pennies on the courthouse stops to signify their desire to "buy their government back," Maupin said. While she did not take part in the coin toss, she and many others laid flower bouquets in the Hammonds' yard and after Dwight spoke to the media, the marchers broke out in a rendition of "Amazing Grace."

Dwight and Susie greeted the crowd on the steps of their home and publicly thanked those who marched.

Referring to a letter of grievance sent to county officials, the district attorney, states attorney and the governor, Maupin said, "All we were asking was for the sheriff or someone to hit the pause button." None of the recipients of the Dec. 11, letter have responded, Maupin said.

"We were just asking someone to look into it. It fell on deaf ears."

Sheriff Dave Ward addressed Harney County citizens on Jan. 4 to inform them that they could expect to see extra patrol cars in the near future. "They are not here to harass the good citizens of Harney county but to help maintain a safe and secure environment while we work through the issues at hand."

The sheriff later asked the occupiers of the federal building, both in public statements and in face-to-face meetings, to leave several times but as of Jan. 8 the group remained at the refuge headquarters.

Those involved in the march were prepared to stand in defense of the Hammonds, had they indicated a desire for protection, Maupin said. "We were ready to stand in front of Dwight and Steven saying 'We won't let them take you without an investigation.' The community would have stood there." But the Hammonds had made a commitment to self-surrender. "They are honorable men. They wouldn't go back on their word," Maupin said.

The national spotlight on her little community will hopefully cause "someone, somewhere to notice what's going on," Maupin said. "I want someone to see the injustice and to remedy it immediately. We are their (government employees) employers. We wouldn't be here with this situation we have at the refuge if the county had exhausted all options and explained to their electorate why they haven't done anything."

Maupin and another local rancher, Travis Williams, a member of the newly formed Committee of Safety for Harney County, said that several individuals – few if any local residents – have occupied a federal building on the local Malheur Wildlife Refuge in an action separate from Saturday's march. (See sidebar for more information.)

"Government overreach" and "unconstitutional," "failed policy," "injustice" and "abuse of power" are terms being thrown about in regard to the Hammond situation.

Maupin and Williams, and other locals Debbie Johnson and Jesse Svejcar say the Hammonds' sentence went beyond just punishment.

"I hope the Hammonds are released, given a pardon," said Johnson, a rancher from Burns. "I want the people that convicted them to be eating their words," she added.

"As a rancher I'd like to see them get their BLM ground back. If they lose that, no one will ever get it," said Williams.

"Overwhelmingly, you won't find many people who think what's been done is right," said Svejcar, a local rancher with a range science degree. "They shouldn't have been charged at all, or if they were it should have been a fine like a traffic violation. That's about like what they did." Even local residents who are not necessarily in agreement with the Hammonds agree that the prison sentence is vindictive on the part of the BLM, he said. "If the BLM just wanted justice served and they thought five years was justice, why did they also throw in the deal that Hammonds had to pay $400,000 in fines? The BLM tried to get the Hammond ranch diplomatically and when the Hammonds said no, they got dirty."

Svejcar, who spent four years researching grassland conditions as a range technologist, said Hammonds' private land is in prime condition thanks to their successful management, including timely burns, and that even the small amount of BLM rangeland they burned is better for it. "It's a well-known fact that controlled burns, the right kind, are beneficial to natural species.

"If you walked out in the street and saw somebody's car parked there and the lug nuts were coming off the tire and you twisted them back on and then got thrown in the clink for a few years for tampering with someone else's property – that would be about the same as the Hammonds going to prison for what they did."

He commented that he knows of at least 20 people who were "almost burned to death" rushing to get cattle to safety in the face of fires lit by the BLM or allowed by the BLM to burn. "Fighting fire doesn't work. Responding doesn't work. They've proven you can prevent these things, which is why the Hammonds used fire – they have some of the healthiest looking range. It is no wonder the feds want their land, it is beautiful and the federal land across the fence is in pretty poor shape."

In a 24 minute speech before the House of Representatives, Oregon Congressman Greg Walden said he doesn't support or defend the armed takeover but that he understands the frustration. The Republican who has represented that region for years, said, "The Hammonds are in prison tonight for setting a backfire they admit to that burned 139 acres. They will sit in prison time served and time going forward five years under a law that I would argue was never intended to mete out that kind of punishment." He referenced BLM-lit fires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres.

Walden called on the president and congress to make a commitment one way or the other on the proposed monument designation in Malheur and neighboring Owyhee County, Idaho, and to address the unfairness of the law that the Hammonds were charged with.

Badden, speaking for the U.S. Attorney's office, agreed that a BLM range conservationist testified under oath that the BLM rangeland improved after the 2001 fire, but added that prosecution-submitted imagery showed the land had not returned to its original condition. She does not know of any BLM fire being intentionally and maliciously ignited with the criminal motive of burning and damaging private property.

Wyoming attorney Frank Falen, who specializes in private property rights and federal land issues, said the Hammonds' terrorism sentence sets a dangerous precedent. "The notion that setting a fire on your own property to protect it from other fires could be terrorism is completely crazy," he said.

A terrorism conviction, Falen said, should be applied only if a person or group was specifically being targeted. "Who were they trying trying to terrorize? If all you are doing is protecting your property from fire, then how in the world are you trying to terrorize somebody? If, under the letter of the law, they are somehow guilty, then the letter of the law needs to be changed. It's supposed to be a terrorism law but it is trapping people who had no intention of being a terrorist."

Svejcar agrees. "Things like the Hammond case have made people afraid to do things on their own land anymore."

Falen said the jury is not necessarily in the position to decide of the law makes sense or not, but just to determine if the defendant violated it.

Charging the Hammonds with terrorism was a "travesty of justice," Falen said. "The prosecutor who prosecuted that case doesn't deserve to be a lawyer."

If the 9th circuit was correct in using the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and the Hammonds entered a plea deal to accept the charges, the situation should cause others to think twice about accepting similar plea deals. "This is a very good example of 'be careful what you plead to,'" Falen said.

Badden said the Hammonds were not tried as terrorists. "There is no reference to terrorism. The U.S. Attorney's Trial Memo stated the elements of those crimes – which were the Hammonds intentionally or maliciously damaged or attempted to damage real or personal property of the U.S. by means of fire. There is no reference to terrorism in the entire 30-page pleading."

The bigger picture

While a number of locals agree that the Hammonds' prison sentence is unfair, the issue is bigger than that one ranch family, they say.

"I would love to see the land management here go back to the locals," said Johnson, whose husband works for a local rancher and also owns some of his own cattle.

"I don't see why ranchers can't make lease payments to the county and the county could pay the workers. That's what I want to see come of this."

Harney County, in the 1980s, was the richest county in the state, said Maupin. "Now guess where we are at – down at the bottom. All of these radical environmental groups have used the National Environmental Policy Act to put a stop to any production of our natural resources. It is very frustrating."

The recent national attention on the Hammond case will cause society to consider the issues that affect America's farmers and ranchers, Maupin hopes. "This government overreach has got to stop. It's putting us out of business and we aren't going to be able to feed America. It's time for the food producers to stand together."

In order for food producers to keep feeding America, they have to be able to put food on their own tables.

With their main labor source gone, this will be a bigger challenge for the Hammonds, but one they are up to, said Svejcar.

The eldest of Steven's children is in college, the other two are at home on the ranch with their mother.

The family has a hired man and has maybe hired a second for the interim. "They have a lot of friends and neighbors, myself included, that will be more than happy to lend a hand. They'll be alright."

Svejcar said Steven and Dwight had been working extra hours, trucking, hauling hay and more to earn extra income to pay their $400,000 court-ordered fine.

"Now they will be just trying to keep their heads above water.

"They are good, tough folks. They will get it figured out," he said. F

Now what?

Falen said the Hammonds might be able to pursue a re-hearing. "People who are convicted do that all the time. If there is new evidence, or if they didn't understand or were not properly advised." Falen said there is no guarantee a new trial will be granted.

Another option is a request for clemency, or pardon, he said.

Both the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and the Oregon Farm Bureau offer supporters the chance to sign online petitions.

The OCA petition calls on the president for a "commute of sentence," which is similar to a pardon but does not wipe away the conviction. The petition has more than 8,000 signatures and must reach 100,000 by Jan. 27 to be considered by the president. Click here for the petition.

The OFB petition, signed by 24,505 people, says simply: "Tell the Department of Justice: Don't brand hardworking ranchers as terrorists. End this cruel and unusual punishment. It's unjust, unfair and un-American."


Stewards of the Land: Ranchers, Livestock and Federal LandsEditor’s Note: We have compiled a list of all the articles we have published, as well as a timeline of the events, surrounding the Bundy Standoff and other incidents relating to government's role in public land management such as the Hammond Fire Trial and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Click here to read more. 

The militia

A group of self-proclaimed militia, at least some of whom took part in the Jan. 2 Hammond support march, traveled about 30 miles south of Burns, Oregon, that day to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters to set up camp for an indefinite amount of time.

Ammond and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven Bundy, Nevada rancher whose ranch became the site for a standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and militia from across the country in 2014, appear to be the group’s leaders.

While the Bundys are quick to tell media that they and other militia members bear arms, they have not made threats nor instigated violence.

The Bundys called on the county sheriff to stop the arrest of Steven and Dwight Hammond. Then they added broader concerns.

“Our purpose is to restore and defend the constitution,” Ammon Bundy said in a news conference. He reportedly told the media he and the group will remain at the refuge headquarters until “the people of Harney County can use these lands without fear.”

“We’ve come here to work, to help restore these ranchers that have lost their ranches,” said another spokesman for the group.

In a Redress of Grievance dated Dec. 11, found on the Bundy family’s blog, the family and a number of supporting groups and individuals totalling about 200,000 cited what they believe to be rights of the Hammonds that have been dismissed. The redress says the Hammonds were placed under duress in an effort to force them to sell their property to the federal government, the court imposed cruel and unusual punishment on the Hammonds, that the Hammonds are not allowed the same protection as federal agents who light fires that escape intended containment lines, that the two Hammond men were sentenced for something different than they were found guilty of, and more.

The redress asked the sheriff to gather an “Evidential Hearing Board” to investigate the allegations and share their conclusions publicly, and keep them from reporting to prison until the “board” settled the matter.

Local rancher Debbie Johnson visited the refuge shortly after the takeover.

Johnson traveled to the facility Jan. 4 with her five children, on a field trip of sorts since school was not in session. “We talked to quite a few guys. I never felt any kind of fear,” she said. While she doesn’t completely support the group’s actions, she supports their goal of local control over government land.

The local community is quite divided over the militia presence – with some residents even threatening to boycott business owners who visited the refuge.

“I don’t think there is any other way to draw attention to this topic. While I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the tactics, we are getting the attention this case has needed for three years and I fully support that,” Johnson said.

A member of the newly-formed Harney County Committee of Safety,” local rancher Travis Williams said he spoke with Ammond Bundy at a town hall meeting in mid December. “Bundy got to talking about his cause and how he’s wanting to help the Hammonds,” Williams said the result of the meeting was the formation of the committee, which, according to the website is: “A governmental body established by the people in the absence of the ability of the existing government to provide for the needs and protection of civilized society.”

The committee has no affiliation with the Bundy group, he said. Their goals are to help achieve leniency for the Hammonds, and eventually to help them regain their BLM permit. “The main goal, at the end of the day, is to get the jurisdictions back where they belong- we all know the federal government has the right to own land but it’s in very small amounts. We’d like to get the jurisdiction back to the county in a way that doesn’t break the counties.”

The sheriff publicly asked the militia group to leave, then reportedly met with Ammon Bundy Jan. 7 and offered to escort the group out of the state.

According to news reports, Bundy declined the offer, telling the sheriff his requests were being ignored. The sheriff tweeted that he might meet with the group again the following morning.


Stewards of the Land: Ranchers, Livestock and Federal Lands
Editor’s Note: We have compiled a list of all the articles we have published, as well as a timeline of the events, surrounding the Bundy Standoff and other incidents relating to government control of public lands such as the Hammond Fire Trial and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Click here to read more. 

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