President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned father-and-son cattle ranchers in southeastern Oregon who were sentenced to serve prison time on two separate occasions for the same charges of arson on public lands, a move their supporters hailed as a shift in how the federal government approaches the West.
Trump’s decision to set aside the convictions of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond could have major implications for how federal officials enforce rules on grazing and other activities on tens of millions of acres owned by taxpayers. The two men’s return to prison helped spark the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a rancher who acted as the protesters’ spokesman, was killed by a state trooper during an encounter between the armed occupation group and law enforcement – a shooting that led to charges against an FBI special agent.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said an “overzealous appeal” of the Hammonds’ original sentences during the Obama administration, which sent them back to prison, was “unjust.”
“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,” Sanders said, adding: “Justice is overdue.”
The Hammonds were convicted of crimes that require a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years in prison under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. A judge, however, initially gave Dwight Hammond three months and his son Steven Hammond a year and a day behind bars.
The government won an appeal over the Hammonds’ sentences in 2015, and the two men were resentenced to serve out the remaining years of a five-year minimum.
Their convictions have drawn sharp rebukes from the local community amid allegations that the family was aggressively prosecuted using anti-terrorism statutes because they were outspoken about public land use in rural Oregon.
Jerome Rosa, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said in an interview Tuesday that the pardons “send a signal that the new administration really understands the significance and the importance of what the ranching community provides for these Western landscapes.”
Rosa had raised the Hammonds’ case with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke – who oversees the Bureau of Land Management, on whose land the Hammonds operates – in April, and Zinke “said he would give his blessing to the president.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., also lobbied hard for clemency, discussing the matter with Trump in a June 29 phone call.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Land Tawney said in an interview that while it is understandable that the ranchers’ supporters were anxious for them to be released, the fact that Trump pardoned them outright rather than commuted their sentences “sends a message of tolerance for lawbreakers who could diminish our public lands and waters.
“You are just empowering and emboldening those who disrespect the people who are there to manage these lands for all the people of America,” Tawney said, predicting that the decision “will send shock waves up the ranks of the BLM.”
The pardons were Trump’s latest use of clemency power in high-profile cases – a tool he’s been inclined to use more often than his recent predecessors at this point in his presidency.
Several of Trump’s previous actions have been driven by television segments, celebrities, friends and White House advisers who have pressed their cases for pardons.
Among those on the receiving end have been controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza; and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to former vice president Richard Cheney.
Last month, Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman serving a life term for nonviolent drug offenses, after meeting with reality television star and socialite Kim Kardashian West to discuss the case. He also posthumously pardoned heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in May after being lobbied by actor Sylvester Stallone.
The men enjoy considerable support in Oregon, though some local residents expressed concern in recent months that clemency could embolden extremist groups in the area. News media outlets in the state – including the Oregonian – have published editorials advocating for a presidential pardon.
In her statement, Sanders characterized the arson as “a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land.” She noted that Dwight Hammond is 76 and has served about three years in prison and that Steven Hammond is 49 and has served about four years.
Dwight Hammond got into a fierce dispute with managers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge long before the armed occupation, according to documents obtained by the Post. In letters to refuge directors in 1986, Hammond called employees “gestapo” and threatened that if he did not get unfettered access to grazing lands, “the problem will be greatly amplified.” In another, he said he’d “pack a shotgun in his saddle” as a way to enforce his position.
The following year, according to a handwritten note, federal employees at the refuge became fearful of “a real physical confrontation with Hammond.”
The two fires for which the Hammonds were convicted took place five years apart. The first one occurred in 2001, when, according to the Justice Department, witnesses told a jury that Steven Hammond “handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.'” The second fire was five years later, and the men said it was a prescribed burn – lit in the midst of a burn ban and without permission from the BLM – that spread out of control.
In a statement Tuesday, Walden said the Hammonds “didn’t deserve a five year sentence for using fire as a management tool, something the federal government does all the time.”
However, Mike Pellant, a retired BLM ecologist in Idaho who still works as a consultant for the agency, said in a recent interview that unauthorized fires can quickly rage out of control, and destroy the sage brush habitat that many species depend on out West.
“It requires an environmental assessment, and the resources, to do the burn,” he said.
The group that occupied the Malheur wildlife refuge for 41 days in early 2016 had directly tied their actions to the Hammonds’ case and the broader frustration that has been building across the West over federal land control.
A remote bird sanctuary in southeastern Oregon, Malheur became the epicenter of that dispute when an armed group occupied it after a peaceful January 2016 march and rally aimed at supporting the Hammonds shortly before they reported to federal prison.
When the march ended, an armed group led by the rancher Ammon Bundy traveled to Malheur and announced plans to stay indefinitely, arguing that what happened to the Hammonds was “just one example, a symptom of a very huge egregious problem” happening nationwide.
Law enforcement officials, though, argued that the occupiers were separate from the rally that drew hundreds to Burns and came with darker intentions.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward said in a statement after the wildlife occupation began, “These men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
The Bundy family – led by Ammon’s father, Cliven – is perhaps the most well-known of the groups that have argued that expanded environmental and land regulation had infringed on their rights.
The family had sparred with the federal government for years. In 2014, Cliven Bundy had his own armed standoff with federal agents who sought to stop him from illegally grazing cattle on federal land. Authorities ultimately backed down at the time.
Federal officials have unsuccessfully sought to prosecute Bundy family members in connection with these showdowns. Ammon Bundy was among a group arrested and charged for the 2016 wildlife standoff, but they were acquitted later that same year.
Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed criminal charges against Cliven Bundy, who was arrested in 2016 when he traveled to Oregon in the waning days of the Malheur occupation.
Former Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said in an interview Tuesday that Burns, Oregon residents are relieved that this case has come to an end, but added, “None of the credit goes to Bundy. . . . I believe this could have happened much much earlier if the Bundys armed occupation hadn’t happened.”
Leah Sottile in Portland, Oregon contributed to this report.