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Trump pardons Oregon ranchers, symbols of anti-federal movement

The move is the latest win for sagebrush rebels, anti-government extremists.

 

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed full pardons for Oregon ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond, whose imprisonment triggered the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. The pardon follows a plea for clemency from Republican Congressman Greg Walden of Oregon, on June 26.

In a press release, Walden wrote: “Today is a win for justice, and an acknowledgement of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West. I applaud President Trump for thoroughly reviewing the facts of this case, rightly determining the Hammonds were treated unfairly, and taking action to correct this injustice.”

Environmental groups and supporters of the refuge had a different take on the pardon. “We regret the message sent by the president when pardoning the Hammonds, which bolsters those intent on destroying federal property and endangering federal employees,” said Geoffrey Haskett, the president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Dwight and Steven Hammond, originally arrested in August 1994.
U.S. Department of Justice

The father-and-son duo were imprisoned for arson after setting a series of fires on private land that moved on to public land. While Walden has claimed that the Hammonds were simply using the fires as a range management tool, witnesses in the federal case against the Hammonds testified that one of the multiple fires were set to cover up evidence of illegal deer poaching on Bureau of Land Management land. Federal agencies incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses fighting the fires. 

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The Hammonds have a history of clashes with federal land managers in rural eastern Oregon. Malheur refuge employees have alleged that they have received death threats from Dwight Hammond dating back to 1986.

In 2012, District Court Judge Michael Hogan sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steve Hammond to a year and a day. After an appeal by the United States Attorney’s Office, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case in 2015 and upheld the mandatory minimum sentences of five years.

The imprisonment of the Hammonds in late 2015 was a flash point for the anti-government militia movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. After rallying in support of the Hammonds in Burns, Oregon, on January 2, 2016, brothers Ryan and Ammon Bundy, whose father Cliven Bundy is a prominent Sagebrush rebel, led supporters to take a “hard stand” and the heavily armed group occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. On January 26, 2016, LaVoy Finicum, a leader of the group, was shot dead by state troopers. In total, the occupiers’ stand lasted 41 days. The occupation did not have the full support of the Hammonds and divided the community of Burns.

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Clemency for the Hammonds is the latest in a string of wins for the  Sagebrush Rebellion and the Bundy family. While figures of lesser stature in the movement have pleaded guilty to crimes related to the occupation in Oregon and the 2013 Bunkerville standoff in Nevada, the Bundys have thus far evaded any legal repercussions for their actions.

Supporters of public land and federal agency employees were frustrated by the president’s move.

“Pardoning the Hammonds sends a dangerous message to America’s park rangers, wildland firefighters, law enforcement officers, and public lands managers,” wrote Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public-lands advocacy group. “President Trump, at the urging of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has once again sided with lawless extremists who believe that public land does not belong to all Americans.”

Note: This article has been updated to correct an error involving the details around LaVoy Finicum’s death; he was shot by state troopers, not federal agents. We regret the error. 

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News.