Hammond ranchers report to prison despite protests of fellow Oregon residents and Bundy-led “militia” | TheFencePost.com

Hammond ranchers report to prison despite 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.

“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.”

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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 June 22, 2012, a jury found Dwight guilty of one count and Steven guilty of two counts.

Gerri Badden, U.S. Attorney's office spokesperson, 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," Badden said.

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. 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."

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 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 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.

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.

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, just to help maintain a safe environment.

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.

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.) Despite the sheriff asking the occupiers to leave, both in public statements and face-to-face meetings, as of Jan. 8, the group remained at the refuge.

Maupin said she hopes this kind of national attention will spark action to change the problems she sees at the root of it.

"I want someone to see the injustice and to remedy it immediately," Maupin said. "We are (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."

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, said local rancher Jesse Svejcar. "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.

"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 said 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.

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."

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. A terrorism conviction should be applied only if a person or group was specifically being targeted, he said.

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, 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," Badden said.

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."

In the 1980s, Harney County was the richest county in the state, said Maupin. Now, it's down at the bottom, she said.

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," he said.

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.


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 bears 6,755 signatures and must reach 100,000 within 30 days to be considered by the president. Find this petition at http://www.orcattle.com

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." Go to http://www.savethehammonds.com to find this petition. ❖

This story has been widely reported in the media, which has perpetuated some myths.

• Myth: The Hammonds lit fires on BLM property.

Fact: Both fires they were convicted of lighting began on the Hammonds’ private property.

• Myth: The 2001 fire was lit to cover up “illegal hunting.” A U.S. Department of Justice news release includes a number of accusations and witness testimonies that were never proven, and that resulted in no convictions. “Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property,” says the DOJ news release.

Fact: Dwight and Steven were found guilty of just two counts – the 2001 and 2006 fires that they accepted responsibility for. The relative referred to was Dwight’s grandson, Dusty Hammond, who was 13 when the incident took place. He was called to the witness stand 11 years later. Presiding Judge Michael Hogan at the sentencing said, “In looking at Dusty Hammond’s testimony, he was a youngster when these things happened. I am sure he remembered things as best he could. There was, frankly, an incident, apparently it was removal of tattoos, that would have colored any young person’s thinking, and if that’s what happened, it can’t be defended, of course, but that’s not what’s before the court today.

“With regard to the sufficiency of the jury verdicts, they were sufficient. And what happened here, if you analyze this situation, if you listened to the trial as I did and looked at the pretrial matters, there was a –there were statements that Mr. Steven Hammond had given that indicated he set some fires, and the jury accepted that for what it was.” The jury found the Hammonds not guilty or were deadlocked on every charge other than the use of fire to destroy public property.

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’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.