Back to reality: Dwight Hammond says America needs to get on her knees and pray
For the last two-and-a-half years, the highlight of Dwight Hammond’s day was hearing the Star Spangled Banner playing on the radio every morning at 6 a.m. “That helped me start my day on a good note.”
Hammond also developed a fresh admiration and empathy for servicemen and women, some of whom are incarcerated due to actions they took as the result of trauma they endured while serving the country, he believes. “I have great compassion for the military personnel in this country. My hat goes off to them,” he said.
Hammond experienced a “cushy life” in prison, he says, making him even more grateful for the hardworking Americans who took the time to write to him or to write to the White House in support of a pardon.
“In prison, the roof didn’t leak, I had three meals a day. It’s you people out here trying to make ends meet that deserve the credit.”
Dwight Hammond, 76 and his son Steven, 49 were found guilty of violating an anti-terrorism law that required a five year minimum sentence, so even though the original sentencing judge said it would “shock the conscience of the court” to sentence them to the full five years, another federal attorney followed up by taking them back to court for a full sentence. The men had plea-bargained away their rights to appeal.
Dwight was found guilty of burning one acre of federal land – when a 2001 management fire to reduce overcrowding juniper spilled over onto BLM-administered land
Steven was charged and sentenced for burning that one acre plus about 138 more BLM-administered acres in a back burn to protect their ranch headquarters in 2006.
Steven originally served a year and a day, and Dwight three months in prison. A federal prosecutor later appealed that sentence and pursued – and won – the full five year sentence. They were taken back to prison to serve their five-year sentences in January of 2016. On July 10, 2018, President Trump provided them both with a full pardon.
Their arrest and imprisonment in 2016 inspired a protest that turned into an occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near their hometown of Burns, Oregon. The occupation came to a dramatic close when Arizona rancher Lavoy Finicum was shot and killed by police officers and the other protesters were arrested when the caravan traveling to a meeting in John Day, Oregon was stopped by a police roadblock. Finicum swerved into the ditch to avoid the roadblock, exited the vehicle, and was shot within minutes. The Hammond men did not play a role in nor comment on the Refuge occupation.
Being thrust into the limelight and spending more than two years in prison was obviously not something Hammond ever hoped for, but he believes good has come of the situation. “We’ve brought attention to the agricultural industry.”
A good share of Americans don’t understand or care where their food comes from, he said.
Even most of the friends he made in prison lacked a basic understanding of agriculture, he said. “I met a lot of really good guys,” he said, explaining that his fellow prisoners shared concerns about the environment and things like pesticides, herbicides and the like. But they, like many consumers didn’t think about the alternative, he said.
“I would remind them that when I was a kid it wasn’t uncommon to find a worm hole in your apple, which was no big deal. The thing you didn’t want to find was half a worm. The average person these days has never seen a worm hole in an apple. It just makes me shake my head when people want to stand up to all of these terrible things – but they don’t know what they’re saying.”
Making God and the Constitution a more prominent fixture in society and particularly in schools will help reverse the anti-agriculture mentality, he believes. “We’ve allowed our education system to throw out God and they are substituting nature for God. We’re worshiping the creation, not the creator and that’s so, so sad.”
The government in many cases has positioned itself as the extreme authority on everything, including agriculture, said Hammond. “It absolutely amazes me how these kids can go through a few years of public college and come out thinking they have the answers over some poor cowboy who has spent a lifetime eating dust and has wore his fingernails out throwing rocks off a hayfield, trying to do right for the land.” University graduates with no practical land management experience often believe that “no use is good use,” said Hammond, and he believes his region serves as proof of the folly in that mentality.
“They are always telling you that you can’t run so many cattle because you’re degrading the land, and then we spend billions on fire protection because the grass isn’t being utilized.” Hammond said that a sawmill in his community that at one time employed hundreds of people was shut down completely decades ago. Then when it was allowed to operate again, trucks hauled logs from New Mexico because regulations prevented the harvest of trees in that region.
“A giant fire went through about 20 years ago. I stood on the front porch and watched it burn. And the tree-huggers were thinking they were accomplishing something by not allowing those bad timber people to log.” Hammond said most of the burned trees eventually rotted away because the millworkers couldn’t access them even after the fire.
It’s not just federal land users who should be alert to federal overreach, he said. “It’s not unusual for the urbanite to lean over the fence and say ‘I don’t like what you are doing,’ on someone’s private property. The general public has lost a lot of respect for private rights because many don’t value their own rights,” he said, concerned that too many Americans think “Uncle Sam” will take care of them.
“America has a lot of correcting to do,” he said, explaining that he attended Bible study while in prison and experienced a bit of an epiphany that America needs to return to her roots.
“Until we get God back in our schools and the constitution back on the wall in the courthouse and create some self –induced morals, nothing will change.”
Morality can’t be legislated, but must be taught at home and in the community, he said. “We have to look at our own selves and develop our own morals. Uncle Sam won’t do that for us.” Hammond hopes more American families will choose church on Sunday.
This week, while Hammond works on a form letter he hopes to send to the thousands of individuals who have written to him in recent months, he contemplates the state of agriculture and society as a whole. `
Hammond believes the President Trump he now knows supports American ag production.
“A lot of the newspapers and television stations made President Trump out to be an evil person, but when I got out I started seeing he is at least saying God is in the picture,” he said. “He’s done a lot of good for agricultural producers.”
“We are most grateful for the thoughts and prayers,” said Hammond, thanking individuals small and great – from the President down to small school children.
The support from Protect the Harvest and its founder Forrest Lucas inarguably played a key role in President Trump’s pardon of Dwight and his son Steven Hammond announced July 10.
The elder Hammond recalls his first time meeting Lucas, just before he turned himself over to authorities to be imprisoned for the second time. “I talked to him, I think it was on the third (of January, 2016) that first time. I had used his product for years, (an additive made by Lucas’s company, Lucas Oil), it is a super oil additive that I used because it was so good.” Hammond said he barely made the connection between the oil additive and the man on the phone, but they seemed to agree on some basic principles.
“He said he felt strongly about Protect the Harvest (the non-profit Lucas founded in 2010) and agriculture in general – that America was kind of forgetting where their food comes from.” Hammond said Lucas went on to tell him he felt the father and son had been wronged and that he would do everything he could to help them. “Heaven knows it took a while. Our government, it grinds very fine when it grinds, but those gears turn slowly.” But as the result of Lucas’ efforts, along with many others, President Trump erased the charges against the Hammond men, and released them from prison.
But Hammond is quick to point out that each and every effort made by close friends and supporters he’s never met from across the country was crucial. “There are sixteen ounces in a pound – that last ounce is no less important than the first one. When I’ve got grade school kids giving me a hug and telling me that they were praying for me every day, that’s no less important than someone who’s got the ear of the President.”
When the Hammonds were re-sentenced in 2015, the BLM refused to renew the family’s grazing permit, so their range land, including approximately 10,000 acres of their own private land has gone ungrazed. Because their private land is intermingled with the BLM- administered land they can’t access their own deeded property due to the denial of their grazing permit. The BLM says the Hammonds’ “unacceptable record of performance,” is reason to deny them of their grazing, and cites court testimony that was ordered by the judge to be thrown out. The denial document goes on to say that the Hammonds “could” be found responsible for other burns.
Although he is not at the helm of Hammond Ranches any longer, Dwight said that the non-renewal of the ranch’s grazing permit has been “gut-wrenching.”
“The permit goes with the ranch. My dad and I bought that permit in 1964. There have been a lot of blood, sweat and tears tied to that permit, along with the pile of cash we bought it with. It’s not theirs to take away. I’m of limited education but I can’t get by the basic truth – they took something that was not theirs to take.”
Hammond said his disagreements with the BLM go back to 1972 when he got “sideways with the feds.” His old-school thinking kept him from backing away when there was a difference in opinions. “When you are educated, you are taught to listen when you are being told what to do. I thought that when you are being wronged that you ought to stand up and say so.”
Dwight said that ranching is a wonderful life and provides a great place to raise children, “it just doesn’t pay very well.” Still, he loves the ranch and his family with all of his being and believes there is a future for at least one of his grandsons to eventually take over the Hammond Ranch on the Steens Mountain of Oregon
“It isn’t about us, it’s about our industry and our country and our fellow man,” says Hammond.
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