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With a pardon, Trump perpetuates Bundy standoff

Clemency for Oregon ranchers convicted of arson fans anti-federal flames.


Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He covered the Malheur revolt for the Idaho Statesman, retiring this year after working for 43 years as a journalist.

President Donald Trump’s pardon of the Oregon ranchers whose legal case helped spark the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge perpetuates the polarization triggered by the entire Bundy saga.


Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, were convicted of arson in 2012. The men set two fires on federal land, one in 2001, witnesses testified, to cover up a poaching incident, and the second in 2006, initially allegedly set as a back burn. This happened at a time when relations between federal officials at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and many local ranchers had become especially tense.

The charges against the two men were brought under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which required a mandatory five-year sentence. Instead, U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven to a year, saying the mandatory sentence “would shock the conscience to me.”

That wasn’t enough jail time for U.S. Attorney Billy Williams. He appealed the sentence, and in 2015 the Hammonds were ordered to complete their five-year sentences.

That’s when Ammon and Ryan Bundy weighed in. Late in 2015, they came to Burns, Oregon, to take up the Hammonds’ cause, which even some moderate ranchers supported.

The Bundys’ involvement inspired militia members and other supporters, who had clashed with federal enforcement officers at the family’s Nevada ranch in 2014. That dispute was over federal grazing fees that Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch, had refused to pay for decades.

The Hammonds, however, ignored the Bundys’ call to join their occupation of the wildlife refuge. Instead, they decided to return to prison, thereby demonstrating some support for the rule of law.

The wetlands of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon are an important resource for migrating birds.

I spoke with federal employees whose families were bullied by some of the men with assault rifles who came from across the West to join in the Bundys’ protest. The people who worked for the government were members of the community — coaches of Little League teams and volunteers in churches who also served in local government. But the Bundy supporters treated them like enemies.

Rancher Fred Otley, a former president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said he thought that state and local officials had overreacted to the presence of militia members. When community meetings were shut down and schools closed, that only encouraged conspiracy theories about federal agents stalking and harassing local people. He and other ranchers had no intention of siding with the Bundys, he said, but he also believed the federal government had treated the Hammonds too harshly.

When the 41-day occupation of the wildlife refuge ended, one man, LaVoy Finicum, was dead. But the division over land policy continued. The Bundys and five others were acquitted of conspiracy, weapons and theft charges after a five-week trial in 2016. But many of their followers are either in jail or face fines and probation.


Then in January, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed the case against Cliven Bundy, his sons and others involved in the 2014 Nevada standoff. She said that prosecutors had engaged in “flagrant misconduct” by withholding evidence that could have supported the Bundys’ case.

No matter what you thought about the Bundys and the radical band of anti-government, gun-toting extremists who follow them, it was clear that the federal government had bungled the two cases.

Imagine this: What if President Barack Obama had commuted the Hammonds’ sentence, showing clemency for the two men who had been willing to return to prison and accept the legal consequences for their actions in destroying federal property? Instead, it was President Trump who gave the Hammonds a full pardon this month, thereby feeding the fires of conflict over federal land management.

An earlier, more nuanced approach might have placated Fred Otley and other Oregon ranchers, who might have felt that justice had been served. It might also have helped the many federal public servants who must carry out their jobs protecting our public lands, often in lonely and vulnerable circumstances.

Now, provocateurs like the Bundys can feel empowered to push their alternative brand of American history and the law. The standoff continues.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].