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Oregon ranchers’ fight with feds sparks militias’ interest


members of the Hammond family post outside a ranch building on their property in Harney County in this undated photo. Steven Hammond, second from left, and his father, Dwight Hammond Jr., center, are due to report to federal prison on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016

Rancher Dwight Hammond Jr. paused while loading cattle one recent day to listen to the fundraising pitch.

Another rancher was selling raffle tickets, raising money for local scholarships while working cattle southeast of town.

Hammond drew out his wallet and pulled out the only currency he had – a $100 bill. He bought five tickets, never asking for change.

Hammond has reached for his wallet a lot in this country. He and his ranch family have supported virtually every charitable activity there is around Harney County. They buy youngsters’ animals at 4H sales. They host barbecues. They support the local senior center.

But now Hammond, 73, won’t be a fixture in the community much longer. He’s headed back to federal prison to serve nearly five years for arson. He will be joined by one of his sons, Steve, 46, who faces up to four years.

Their arrival in prison, scheduled for Monday, won’t quiet the controversy that has swirled around their case for years.

The men were convicted of arson, but under a provision of an expansive federal law punishing terrorism. They each served prison terms that the sentencing judge thought just, only to be told by appellate judges they had to go back to serve longer.

Their case heightened debate about how the federal government runs its lands. The United States of America holds deed to three-fourths of Harney County. Ranching done for a century and more is under pressure from environmentalists, recreationalists, and hunters.

Across the country, there is deepened concern about how authorities apply justice. And the issue of how to use federal land affects anyone who has been to a national forest or a federal wildlife refuge.

The plight of the Hammonds has become a rallying call for one militia and patriot group after another. Men who see tyranny in federal acts are standing for the two men, though the Hammonds have said through their lawyers they want no part of the militancy.

The Hammonds, who built a solid reputation and a prosperous ranching outfit in Oregon’s most remote corner over the past 50 years, are keeping quiet. They declined an interview request and didn’t answer written questions about their ranching, their crimes, and their new protectors.

Instead, just before Christmas, they issued a family statement:

“Our family appreciates the support of our local community. We have lived here, raised our families here, invested our time here, and grown our ranching business here because of the shared values of community, land stewardship, and family. We hope to see those values continue for many generations to come.”

The Hammonds

Dwight Hammond was about 22 when he moved to the Diamond Valley, a remote range where cattle baron Pete French once held sway. Hammond and his wife Susan started Hammond Ranches Inc., beginning with about 7,000 acres.

Today, Hammond Ranches owns about 12,000 acres in the Diamond-Frenchglen area. They use this ground to run cattle during the winter. Until two years ago used 26,420 acres of land belonging to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for summer grazing.

Over the years, Hammond built a side business trucking livestock while his youngest son, Steve, helped run the ranch.

Together, they and their wives became civic anchors, according to letters later submitted to federal court. They served on school boards and nonprofit boards. They were active in industry groups, with Steve Hammond once serving as president of the Harney County Farm Bureau.

The elements that ultimately led the Hammond men to prison were fire and federal land.

Fire is a tool on the high plateau of eastern Oregon, used to burn invasive species that crowd out native grass and other plants. But it is also a threat. Recent wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in this territory, putting the ground off limits for grazing. Cattle have been killed in the runaway blazes, and lives endangered.

In 1999, Dwight Hammond got a stern letter from the local manager for the federal land bureau saying that Steve Hammond had set a fire that spread to bureau ground. The letter said Steve told officials in a subsequent meeting that he “did not believe there was any way to control fire behavior or where it would burn, and that he did not take any action to prevent the fire from burning.”

It wasn’t the family’s first run-in with federal authorities. Five years earlier, Dwight Hammond had been arrested but not prosecuted in a dispute over access to water with managers of the huge Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation’s premier stops for migratory birds. Heavy equipment from the Hammond ranch obstructed a crew building a fence to keep cattle out.

And in 1999, Steve Hammond confronted hunters on land bureau property near his ranch. The hunters said the next day “he fired several shots from his firearm that the hunting party heard about, but he said he was shooting at rabbits,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni Jr. said in court recently. Hammond was convicted later of interfering with use of public land.

An attorney for Steve Hammond said in a court filing that his actions “arose out of his belief that there was something wrong with a system that authorized commercial hunting of wildlife that temporarily wandered onto barren public land from private land lush with forage.”

In the case of the 1999 fire on bureau land, the federal manager left off by warning the family not to let it happen again.

But lighting public rangeland on fire is exactly what federal prosecutors say the Hammonds proceeded to do.

The fires

The first fire came in 2001: a simple prescribed burn, intended to take out invasive juniper, by Steve and Dwight Hammond’s account.

But federal prosecutors said the men’s real motive for starting the blaze, which consumed 139 acres and forestalled grazing for two seasons, was to cover up evidence of an illegal slaughter of deer. The government presented evidence that Steven Hammond called an emergency dispatcher to ask if it was OK to burn — roughly two hours after they already lit the fire. His attorney said in court that Hammond called the land bureau beforehand.

The government acknowledged that the next fire, in 2006, was intended as a defensive move. Steve Hammond set backfires to keep a lightning-caused fire from burning onto the Hammonds’ ranch and hitting their winter feed.

But the government said Steve Hammond lit up on the flanks of a butte, despite a countywide burn ban and the knowledge that young part-time firefighters were camped up higher. Their crew boss spotted the fires, which were set at night, and moved the crew.

How prosecutors pursued the ensuing criminal case over the two fires is what bothers Hammond supporters.

When the men were indicted in 2010 on federal arson charges, they faced sentencing under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Some Hammond backers and a host of recent social media posts translated that to mean the Hammonds were treated as terrorists.

“When you starting bringing in the terrorism act for God-fearing livestock producers in eastern Oregon, something is wrong,” said Barry Bushue, a Multnomah County berry farmer and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Federal prosecutors say they did no such thing.

“At no time have I ever called these two men terrorists. Never,” Papagni, the federal prosecutor, said in court last October. “They committed arson.”

But the five-year sentence mandated by terrorism law also concerned people. Among the critics: the federal judge who presided over the Hammonds’ trial in Pendleton.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said at the men’s original sentencing in 2012 that such a term would be unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment.

“It would be a sentence which would shock the conscience,” Hogan said before sentencing Dwight to three months and Steve to one year.

The men served their time and went home to raise cattle. But their case, it turned out, was far from settled.

Amanda Marshall, then U.S. attorney for Oregon, said she recommended the government challenge Hogan’s sentence as illegal.

“If the government stands by and doesn’t pursue the statutorily mandated sentence in this case, what kind of precedent does that set?” Marshall asked. Hogan, she said, imposed “an unlawful sentence.”

Papagni, the federal prosecutor, said in court last fall that “the government did what we are supposed to do when someone doesn’t follow the law, be it a judge or be it two ranchers in eastern Oregon.”

The solicitor general at the U.S. Justice Department authorized a rare appeal of an Oregon judge’s order.

The appeals court sided with the prosecution, and the Hammonds trooped to federal court last October to face a second sentencing.

Family and supporters filled the Eugene courtroom and U.S. Chief District Judge Ann Aiken gave the two convicted ranchers a chance to speak.

“I have nothing to say,” Steve Hammond said.

“I have got nothing to say,” Dwight Hammond said.

“Really?” the judge asked. “That’s so unusual.”

She sentenced them to prison to finish five-year terms but left them free until after the holidays.

The punishment

The Hammonds’ pending return trip to prison deeply troubles ranchers and others.

“There’s nobody in history who has gone to federal prison for burning a few acres of public property,” said Melodi Molt, a Harney County rancher and former president of Oregon CattleWomen. “It’s not right.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau said the second prison term is “gross government overreach and the public should be outraged.”

And then there is what some locals see as a government land grab.

The Hammonds in late 2014 agreed to pay the federal government $400,000 to settle a lawsuit seeking to force them to pay more than a $1 million in costs for fighting fires they set. The Hammonds paid $200,000 right away and paid the rest Thursday.

The settlement also required the Hammonds to give the land bureau first chance at buying a particular ranch parcel adjacent to public land if they intended to sell. For some, this was evidence that the government all along was after the Hammond ground to add to its Steens Mountain holdings.

“One thing that upsets cattle people is that provision,” said Bob Skinner, a Jordan Valley rancher representing the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. But federal attorneys said the land provision was inserted in case the Hammonds felt they had to sell ranchland to pay the settlement. The Hammonds apparently won’t face that prospect because they intend to pay the balance.

As the men pack for prison, the family faces challenges to keep the cattle business going.

The federal land bureau last year decided not to renew grazing permits because of the criminal convictions. A Boise lawyer appealing the decision said the loss will strain the ranch.

Molt said ranchers are ready to support the Hammond outfit.

“All they have to do is call on community members if they need help,” said Molt.

But at this point only President Obama can spare the Hammonds from serving their full sentence. A pardon isn’t expected, and clemency takes years to process.

Bushue, the farm bureau president, noted Obama earlier this year commuted sentences for drug offenders.

“I hope the president looks as kindly on community members as he does with drug offenders,” Bushue said.

Meanwhile, the long federal case has revealed friction within the Hammond family, and it’s cast light on a lesser-known conflict between the authorities and the Hammonds.

A key witness for the government’s arson case was a family member who was a teenager at the time of the 2001 fire. The Oregonian/OregonLive is not naming him because some material presented in court, concerning his experiences with the Hammonds, was gathered while he was a minor.

The young man testified how he and his relatives started the blaze. He said in court that Steve Hammond gave him a box of matches on a September morning and told him to “light up the whole country on fire.” He testified that his relatives told him later that day to keep quiet about what happened.

In October, prosecutors told a judge the young man had a reason he didn’t talk about the arson for eight years.

According to a court document filed by prosecutors in the arson case, the government’s witness told federal agents “he feared when Steven Hammond learned he had talked to police, that Steven would come to his front door and kill him.”

According to police reports filed as part of the Hammonds’ second sentencing, the boy previously had accused Steve Hammond of physical abuse when he was 16 and living with Dwight and Susan Hammond.

He said the Hammonds disapproved that he’d used a paperclip to carve two initials in his chest, according to a Harney County sheriff’s deputy who interviewed the boy. The teenager told the investigator “Steve used a very coarse sand paper to sand off the initials,” the deputy’s report said. The teen said Dwight Hammond left the room but that Susan Hammond stayed, telling him to clean up afterward and “not to have a pity party,” the report said.

Steve Hammond was charged with criminal mistreatment, but a diversion agreement got the charge dismissed. He had to take anger management classes, perform 40 hours of community service, and stay away from his nephew.

Dwight Hammond explained it was “decided by the family” to sand off the initials, the investigating deputy wrote. None of the Hammonds would say who did the sanding, the investigator’s report said.

Steve Hammond did make one thing clear during their three-hour interview, the investigator wrote, telling the deputy “he did not agree with the government getting involved in family matters.”

— Les Zaitz

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