Obama’s DOJ Demands More Prison Time for Ranchers; Protesters Seize Wildlife Refuge Headquarters

By Rachel Alexander Published on January 3, 2016

Make a mistake on federal land, even when you think you have permission, and you may find yourself going to prison for terrorism.* That’s the experience of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father and son who own a family ranch in southern Oregon and are headed to prison Monday. This weekend some of his ranching associates had had enough.

A peaceful street protest in support of the Hammonds was quickly followed by something more dramatic. “After the peaceful rally was completed today, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said. “A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution.”

Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, said that he, two of his brothers and scores of other protesters were occupying the headquarters. The Oregonian reports:

In phone interviews from inside the occupied building Saturday night, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, said they are not looking to hurt anyone. But they would not rule out violence if police tried to remove them, they said.

“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy said.

The Oregonian story also includes an Ammon Bundy Facebook video asking others to come help him. There he says that “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County.” Beneath the video, the AP reports, is this statement: “ALL PATRIOTS IT’S TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED.”

Unjustly Convicted?

So, have Dwight and Steven Hammond been unjustly convicted? In 2001 and then again in 2006, the two purposely set two controlled range fires on land they were leasing from the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in rural, southern Oregon. The 2001 fire was set to eliminate invasive species and, on their account, accidentally burned 139 acres of the land. They explained the 2006 fire was set to protect their land from fires raging on adjacent federal land, and accidentally burned only one acre of BLM land. No one was hurt in either fire.

Steven Hammond said he called and received permission from the BLM to set the first fire.** The BLM claims there was no agreement.

Curiously, the DOJ did not press charges until 2011, five years after the second fire and ten years after the first one. Even more curiously, the DOJ didn’t charge them for misuse of public lands. The indictment accused them of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act. The relevant part of that law was intended to apply to people who intentionally start forest fires as acts of terrorism, not ranchers using standard ranching techniques to try to control invasive species and lower the risk of forest fires.

The indictment stated in part that the Hammonds “conspired and agreed to commit” the following offense: “by means of fire(s), intentionally and maliciously damage and destroy, or attempt to damage and destroy, vehicles and real or personal property, in whole or in part, owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States or any department or agency thereof.” The charges carried a minimum five-year prison sentence. The BLM, represented by DOJ attorneys, could have brought charges other than federal arson against the ranchers that would not have required a mandatory minimum.

A straightforward reading of their motives for the controlled fire strongly suggests that the Hammonds did not “intentionally and maliciously” try to destroy government property. The judge who sentenced the Hammonds, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, realized the law did not fit the crime, and so sentenced them to a lighter term in prison of three months for the father and one year for the son.

Judge Hogan explained that sentencing them to the mandatory minimum “would shock the conscience.” He said it would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, because five years behind bars is “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.” In fact, both “the judge and jury found the fire had arguably increased the value of the land for grazing.”

But the DOJ prosecutors would not let it go, and appealed Hogan’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — a waste of taxpayer dollars, considering the Hammonds had already served time in prison for a crime that did not fit the charges.

Three judges on the Ninth Circuit would not stand up to the DOJ prosecutors, and remanded the case back to another judge (Judge Hogan had retired) to comply with doling out the mandatory minimum. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken duly followed orders, comparing the fires to “eco-terrorism” by environmental activists.

Meanwhile, the BLM has refused to grant the Hammond family a permit for cattle grazing over the past two years, causing them hardship. It is instead charging them with $400,000 in damages.

“This Extreme Abuse of Power”

The Oregon Farm Bureau protested “this extreme abuse of power” (Dwight Hammond had been a member of its board). The well-respected organization started a petition to send to the DOJ that has over 8,000 signatures at savethehammonds.com. “We understand Dwight and Steve broke the law,” Oregon Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Dave Dillon told Western Livestock Journal in an interview. “But the federal government appears to be acting out of vindictiveness here, not justice.” The Bureau hopes President Obama will pardon the Hammonds. It recently announced that it will be submitting FOIA requests to the BLM and pursuing justice further.

After reading the indictment, I think it is very possible that the BLM has a vendetta against the Hammonds because they refused to allow BLM firefighters access to their land when they were putting out the accidental fire on public lands. Were the Hammonds wrong to prohibit the government access to cross their land for that purpose? Maybe. They did not respond to emails forwarded to them and phone numbers listed online were disconnected.

Perhaps the BLM’s record of abuses toward rural land owners made the Hammonds legitimately afraid to allow the BLM access, knowing how much further that could allow the abuse to continue. Considering an accidental — and likely legitimately set (they claim to have had the BLM’s permission) — fire had progressed from their leased property onto other BLM property, how far could the situation be twisted against them, knowing the BLM’s record of mistreatment of other ranchers?

The public is overwhelmingly on the ranchers’ side. The East Oregonian ran an editorial in October denouncing the lengthy prison sentence, noting that “Other federal laws that carry five-year minimum sentences address treason, child pornography, using a gun while committing a violent crime or importing drugs. Burning 140 acres does not compare with any of those crimes.”

The Hammonds have already served one year, three months and a day between the two of them. They are required to turn themselves into the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on January 4, 2016. At some point, when will the grown-ups step in and stop this gross abuse of the legal system?

 

*This has been corrected to reflect that the Hammonds said they had received permission to light one or both of the fires. We were unable to corroborate this.
**The Stream has been unable to corroborate whether the Hammonds said they received permission to light the second fire, so this has been corrected to state they only claim to have asked for permission to light the first fire, 
which the government claims did not take place until two hours after the fire had been set.

For other articles related to prosecutorial abuses, see:

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  • Paul Burgett

    I’m disappointed with The Stream here. I clicked on the “called and received” link in the “Unjustly Convicted?” paragraph and read the case file summarizing the charges and depicting the actual specific actions taken by the Hammonds. What I saw was quite scary and does appear to fit, potentially, into what could easily be described as acts of terrorism, specifically with regard to the Hammonds’ interactions with the BLM firefighters. The Hammonds allegedly at different times surrounded the firefighters, not onlly denying them access to their (Hammonds) personal property but also following them onto government land to light fires before and behind them, possibly even intending to trap and kill the firefighters. This is very disturbing if true, and warrants a more objective report by The Stream in general and by Ms. Alexander in particular.

    —-“After reading the indictment,
    I think it is very possible that the BLM has a vendetta against the
    Hammonds because they refused to allow BLM firefighters access to their
    land when they were putting out the accidental fire on public lands…” —-

    is quoted in this article, yet any reader of the indictment itself will come to natural conclusion that the word “accidental” is not used appropriately. What is more,

    —-“Considering an accidental — and likely legitimately set (they claim to
    have had the BLM’s permission) — fire had progressed from their leased
    property onto other BLM property, how far could the situation be twisted
    against them, knowing the BLM’s record of mistreatment of other
    ranchers?”—-

    is used to substantiate the innocence of motive for the Hammonds, yet again, the facts do not support this. The BLM has and had a “prescribed burn plan” which allowed for the burning of lands to achieve the purposes declared by by the Hammonds. It appears very likely that the Hammonds did not submit a plan and did not have one on record (or else it would have been used in their defense!). We should all understand that working with the government – federal, state, or local – involves paperwork. It can be a frustration to be sure, but it a reality that applies to us all, from citizens to the very employees of the agency. The paperwork must be done to ensure accountability by all. It seems very likely that Hammonds’ refusal to comply with a Prescribed Burn Agreement – and more importantly with the independent timetable that would be stipulated therein – is the root cause of this dispute.
    Now, I will be clear, I’m no fan of big government, and I’ve seen the BLM, the EPA, and every other alphabet-soup agency commit their share of atrocities. I don’t need to name them, we all know they are not perfect. But folks, this is our government! It is staffed by people who live here and are our neighbors. If we don’t agree with policy, we need to act legislatively and change the policy. That is what our government is designed for. Enough said on that, I want to call attention back to the The Stream, because it’s a great source of information and news that I enjoy reading and utilizing as a primary source of data.
    I think you’re wrong here, guys. I would encourage you to further fact-check your suppositions and remember that most of the people reading this simply don’t understand what it’s like to live out on the range and the dichotomy of citizen-government interaction that comes into play under such circumstances. We don’t need reporters lighting their own “fires” and getting readers mad at the government. The feds do enough things to get people mad at them. Let’s observe objectively and report as such, so that readers can receive a fair and balanced report.

  • Rachel Alexander

    Paul, the assertions that the Hammonds “terrorized” the firefighters appear to be mere accusations that were not substantiated. The indictment claims that the Hammonds deliberately set additional fires after interacting with BLM – but none of this made it into either unfavorable court opinion, the Ninth Circuit’s nor the remand to the District Court.

    As for whether the Hammonds had permission whether to set the fires, well, they claim they got permission verbally over the phone. You choose not to believe them, or that it was inappropriate, and the Ninth Circuit went along with that. But the reality is, if the Hammonds state that the BLM verbally gave them permission over the phone, it is perfectly conceivable that the BLM in this rural area did not require paperwork at the time for those incidents.

  • MAX GOUGH

    I pretty much agree with what Paul said, but I am always suspicious when the term “terrorism” is applied inappropriately (IMHO) simply to facilitate prosecution of people obviously outside the intention of those laws, ie, to protect the US against 9/11 type attacks.
    But, you know Paul, I got to wondering if this is the same kind of involvement of the DOJ as in Ferguson and Philadelphia. I mean, which sounds more like terrorism: burning isolated, unoccupied land in Oregon or burning vehicles in public streets and attacking police officers with rocks and Molotov cocktails? I think I will have to research DOJ’s involvement in those riots to know for sure, but I am guessing they didn’t insist on charges of terrorism in those riots. I guess I could be wrong … what do you think?

  • Paul Burgett

    Rachel, I agree that the reports of terrorism were unsubstantiated. I did look up the Oregon BLM Prescribed Burn procedures and it appears that there would need to be more than just a phone call made. Having served as a federal employee myself while in the military I’m well aware that phone calls without any sort of paperwork does not ring true for procedural accountability – hey this is federal government, the big mama of over-documentation since its humble beginnings – but I suppose there is room for debate there. I appreciate your diligence and reply, I just know that this particular issue is going to get very touchy.
    Max, I agree that the term “terrorist” may have been liberally applied here, but where my real concern now lies is what these folks are doing staging an armed takeover of a federal building.
    While I’m all for the second amendment – as well as the first, third, fourth, etc., this is really bad timing. As proponents of freedom I think we’ll need to be very careful about taking sides on this issue just for the sake of principle. The line is going to get blurry with this one (and already is) with people making accusations of racial bias, gun-paranoia, anti-ethical prejudice and indecent reporting (on the part of ABC News). While we may want to support the ranchers and those who are standing up against real tyranny on the part of federal agencies, we have to be careful not to endorse the specific actions of those who are standing up to tyranny when they cross the line themselves.
    With regard to the Ferguson and Baltimore rioting, Max, I believe that federal terrorism charges (those would fall under the Patriot Act I think) did not apply because the actions were of a local/state nature, and the realpolitik of the situation prevented authorities from charging individuals. Many rioters in Baltimore were simply released without charges, but it would appear that this was done to let the situation de-escalate. In that context it would appear correct for federal charges in this case owing to the jurisdictional authority.
    What do you think about the timing? Gosh it could not have been worse! I think President Obama probably called the Town Hall meeting just because this was already happening – what a perfect backdrop to frame his agenda against and set him up for a new year of executive actions…

    • MAX GOUGH

      ” I believe that federal terrorism charges (those would fall under the Patriot Act I think) did not apply because the actions were of a local/state nature” ….. That is confusing. Are you saying an act of terrorism can only be considered if it is an act directed at the federal government? If so, does that mean civilians tortured and killed by ISIS (for instance) are not victims of terrorism? I think I need clarification.

      • RonitaM

        Where federal’s claims are ill-founded lays in the genesis of the matter – “burning grass;” which was inaccurately charged from the onset. The Hammonds did not commit one act, not one act, that constituted cause for charges. The grass they burned belonged to them.
        Perhaps one of the reasons this matter got way out of line might be because the Varney County Sheriff and the Hammonds attorney don’t know statutes/case law/state and U.S. Constitutions as pertains to private property on federal land. Which reminds me of another little curiosity, in that judge’s who support “takings without just compensation” suddenly retire or disappear after such decisions.
        In review of the judge’s actions, it appears he did know, but was allegedly complicit with federal.
        The Hammonds situation is patternistic as to how federal and their grant money funded buddies, orchestrate said takings without just compensation.
        It’s one of many ways authentically bad guys (and gals) provide “unencumbered collateralization” for the loans they take out with the private company known as the Federal Reserve.
        Just please keep in the fore, as you read all reports on this, that it boils down to the simple fact that the Hammonds are now in prison because they “burned their own grass.” Seriously folks. It’s as straight forward and simple as that…

  • wam bam

    I don’t think the bundy’s and whoever else participating, where doing drugs or drinking too much, which is drugs, that cannot be controlled in the U.S.A. this was most likely a discussion based, on a lot of thought, being sober. FOX and CNN, is going to love this. because the situation will not be a one week fix.

  • Kumbayah

    Obama;s the one who needs prison time, long overdue.

  • RonitaM

    Please know that the Hammonds are being imprisoned for “burning their own grass.”
    Whoever, willfully and without authority, sets on fire any timber, underbrush, or grass or other
    inflammable material upon the public domain or upon any lands owned or leased
    by or under the partial, concurrent, or exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,
    or under contract for purchase or for the acquisition of which condemnation
    proceedings have been instituted, or upon any Indian reservation or lands
    belonging to or occupied by any tribe or group of Indians under authority of
    the United States, or upon any Indian allotment while the title to the same
    shall be held in trust by the Government, or while the same shall remain
    inalienable by the allottee without the consent of the United States, shall be
    fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

    This section shall not apply in the case of a fire set by an allottee in the reasonable exercise of
    his proprietary rights in the allotment.

    (June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 788; Pub. L. 100–690, title VI, § 6254(j),
    Nov. 18, 1988, 102 Stat. 4368.)

    • gotwood4sale

      .

      And mismanagement of fire by Federal agencies has damaged hundreds of thousands of acres over the last couple of decades.

      Is there any concern for this mismanagement and environmental damage?

      Are any of the people responsible for this destruction held accountable?

      .

      • RonitaM

        You pose an excellent question. The answer is no. They’ve never been held responsible…

        • gotwood4sale

          .

          True.

          .

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