This week President Trump pardoned two Oregon ranchers serving five-year prison terms for arson on federal lands. The two men had become a cause celebre in the ongoing fight between ranchers and the federal government over water and grazing rights.
The Hammonds were about halfway through their prison sentence when the pardon came down. The news hit Harney County, Oregon yesterday morning. It sparked an impromptu celebration at Kati Batie’s house in Burns.
“We’re in our pajamas, people are driving up and down the street, honking at us,” said the Burns resident. “It’s an amazing day in Burns.”
The Hammonds had fought with federal land agencies for decades over water and grazing rights and at their trial said the fires were to burnup fuel to protect their land from out-of-control wildfires. But the jury didn’t buy it.
Many ranchers felt the Hammond’s five-year prison sentence was unjust, and protested. That’s what sparked the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon led by the Bundy family.
“The Hammonds need your help,” said Ammon Bundy back in 2015, making an appeal for people to come to Burns and protest. “They need you to stand whether they’re afraid or not.”
The Oregon occupation lasted 41 days and ended in a showdown with law enforcement that left one protester dead. The broader cause of the occupiers was focused on what they saw as federal overreach, but they talked about the Hammonds a lot.
Dwight Hammond’s wife Susie is elated to hear her husband and son will be coming home.
“I will be so happy just to see them," she says. "That’s all we want is we want them home and just to have a life back.”
She feels strongly that her family has been treated unfairly. “I don’t think anybody knows how bad it is to have the government against you.”
In 2001 the Hammonds were charged with arson after setting fire to federal lands adjacent to their ranch. The son, Steven, was convicted for setting another fire in 2006, which he said was a burn to prevent wildfire from spreading to fuels on his own property.
They were charged with arson under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Under that act, both men faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the crime of “maliciously damaging property of the United States with fire.”
During their initial sentencing, federal judge Michael Hogan said that a lengthy sentence would “shock the conscience” and instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steven Hammond to a year and a day in prison. The judge argued the mandatory minimum violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The men served their time and were released, but a federal appeal of Michael Hogan’s ruling eventually made its way to an appeals court, which rejected the judge’s sentences based on precedent set by previous rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.
So years after both men had served time and were released from prison, they were sentenced to return and serve out the rest of the mandatory minimum sentences of five years each.
The Bundys, like many in the ranching community, believed those sentences were unjust, the latest in what they saw as a long line of federal tyrannies. The Hammond’s story reminded Ammon Bundy of his own family’s decades-long conflict with federal land management agencies. For years, Cliven Bundy had been entrenched in a battle with the Bureau of Land Management over his refusal to pay federal fees to graze cows. That battle had ended in a standoff with federal agents at the family’s ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014.
Ammon Bundy’s father Cliven first urged him to look into the Hammond’s case back in 2015.
“I’m afraid that what’s happening to them is the same thing that’s happened to us,” Cliven Bundy told his son told Ammon.
Initially, Ammon Bundy had resisted the idea of getting involved. But the Hammonds’ story kept him up at night.
“I had this overwhelming feeling that it was my duty to get involved to protect this family,” he later said.
In late fall of 2015, Ammon Bundy reached out to the Hammond family with a special offer. He wanted to help them fight back. They could revolt; they could refuse to report to prison. Bundy promised that he and his followers would defend them if federal agents tried to take them away. They might set up an armed perimeter around the Hammond’s ranch, and safeguard the Hammonds until the federal government agreed to pardon father and son.
The Hammonds had a history of tension with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over grazing and land-use conflicts. But what Bundy was proposing was a bigger and potentially more dangerous fight than anything they’d ever undertaken.
Later that year, Ammon Bundy met with the Hammonds but couldn’t convince the ranchers to go through with his plan.
“I’m a man of my word,” Dwight Hammond had told Ammon. That meant reporting for prison as he had agreed to do.
For people who disagree with the Bundys and the Hammonds, this pardon is an important signal. Aaron Weiss is with the Center for Western Priorities. He believes this sends the message that people don’t need to follow the rules of federal agencies.
“This will undoubtedly embolden those folks who now think, rightfully so, that they have a friend in the White House," says Weiss. "And they have a friend in the Interior Department who won’t stand up for the folks on the front lines."
“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement and farmers and ranchers across the West,” the White House said Tuesday in a statement.
The pardon is the latest in a series of what some feel are “wins” for Bundy supporters and those who want more local control of federal lands.
The Bundys and others were acquitted for the Oregon standoff in 2016. And then this year, the federal trial over a 2014 Bundy conflict in Nevada ended in a mistrial. Cliven Bundy and his sons were on trial for a conflict with federal agents over Cliven Bundy’s unpaid grazing fees. But the prosecution bungled that trial, and the federal judge in that case declared a mistrial without a chance of retrying that case.
After those two trials, many Bundy followers had turned their attention back to the case of the Hammonds. They circulated petitions asking Trump to take action. Although most people in Burns did not support the occupation, many locals were hoping for a presidential pardon for the Hammonds--including Linsay Tyler.
“We’ve been fighting for the Hammonds' release for the last two-and-a-half years,” says Tyler. “It’s really difficult for me to express my gratitude right now. I’m just all over the place, I’m so happy.”
Ryan Bundy told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the pardon gives legitimacy to the occupation he and his brother spearheaded in 2016 in Harney County.
“Today shows we were right, we went there for a good reason, and our efforts have finally come to fruition,” he said.
Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher .
Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.