Well, like most really bad ideas, the Malheur Refuge occupation ended as expected – badly. But I want to discuss what started this mess, the egregious jailing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Dwight is 73 and son Steven is 46, and neither are exactly angelic. In the 1980s the Hammonds illegally and secretly diverted water from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Steven Hammond has a state rap for “forging a landowner’s hunting preference form,” and in 2000 was busted in federal court for interfering with hunters on public land. The Hammonds were verbally warned for setting a fire in 1999 that slopped over onto public land, and in 2001, the family set a fire that spilled over and burnt 139 acres of public land, which according to the Ninth Circuit ruling on the Hammonds’ sentencing, “took the acreage out of production for two growing seasons.”
Then, in August 2006, while Bureau of Land Management crews were working the Krumbo Butte fire, as the U.S. attorneys state: “Despite [a county fire] ban, without permission or notification to BLM, Steven Hammond started several ‘back fires’ in an attempt [to] save the ranch’s winter feed.”
How large were the backfires? The Ninth again: Hammond’s “fires burned about an acre of public land.” Federal prosecutors then brought felony charges under terrorism laws Congress passed in 1996 (in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing). The Hammonds were convicted and sentenced in October 2012.
For burning grass that might have fed a handful of cows (and seriously ticking off fire crews), Dwight Hammond got three months in jail, a year and a day for Steven Hammond. Trouble is, federal law mandates a five-year minimum sentence, which Judge Michael Hogan refused to impose on what was his last day on the bench.
Judge Hogan ruled following the law would “result in a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offense.” Doing so, he said, would “shock the conscience” – the sort of “cruel and unusual punishment” our Eighth Amendment prohibits.
But jail isn’t all of the punishment. In February 2014, Bureau of Land Management District Manager Brendan Cain denied renewal of the Hammonds’ grazing permits, which the ranch had utilized since 1964, totaling roughly 1,500 animal unit months. Think that didn’t hurt?
Furthermore, parallel with the criminal prosecutions, the Feds brought civil litigation, reaching a settlement in which the Hammonds agreed to pay the government $400,000. Significantly, the civil settlement provided that if the Hammonds had to sell land to pay, the government had first right of refusal to buy that land. The Hammonds somehow found the cash.
So with that, I’ve joined those who feel five years in jail for the Hammonds is off-the-charts ridiculous, signing Oregon Farm Bureau’s petition for President Barack Obama to grant the Hammonds clemency. No less than the Portland Oregonian editorialized that while the Hammonds “broke the law and should be punished appropriately,” President Obama should “consider” clemency.
Would I sign a petition to go easy on any of the Bundy Bunch? Never. As Oregon Farm Bureau put it, the occupation “only harms the Hammonds and the rest of the community because it diverts public attention and scrutiny away from the injustice that the federal government perpetrated on this Oregon family.”
Getting a sense of déjà vu? Oh, yep. Remember the early 1990s and a couple of government over-reaches, some bloody, fiery “enforcements” that raised widespread concern? A congressional blowout election?
Then came the explosive massacre of 168 people in Oklahoma City – Timothy McVeigh’s gift to Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign – and in a twist of irony, the main reason Congress passed the 1996 anti-terrorism statute the Hammonds are now being disproportionately punished with.
So here we go again: the Hammond fiasco was a chance to have an adult conversation about widespread discontent and the federal policies that are driving that discontent in the rural West. Maybe the adults could at least discuss what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment?
Instead, we have the wrong people talking about the wrong issues at the wrong time in the wrong place for all the wrong reasons. Again.
Thanks for nothing, Bundy Bunch.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.