The BLM's inconsistent approach toward rule breakers

A look at how the feds have — and have not — punished individuals for defying regulations.

 

One of the reasons Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their armed friends are holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, deep in the frigid sage plains of Oregon, is to protest what they see as an unjust punishment of a father-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond.

In October, a judge ordered each of the Hammonds to finish a five year required minimum sentence for lighting fires on public land back in 2001 and 2006. Critics say that’s far too harsh. And, indeed, it is a much greater punishment than the Bundys’ father, Cliven, has so far received for grazing his cattle illegally and without paying fees on a Bureau of Land Management allotment for decades. In fact, Bundy has yet to be punished at all, either for that or for his role in inciting supporters to threaten federal agents at gunpoint back in May of 2014.

Former federal officials blame the Bureau of Land Management's inaction in the Bundy case for the debacle that’s unfolding in Oregon today. “At the end of the day, most people have a common respect for the law, and with Mr. Bundy, he just believes differently, that he’s above the law,” Bob Abbey, former director of the BLM, told High Country News recently. “The fact that their trespass hasn’t been dealt with in a timely matter reinforced beliefs.”

HCN took a look at a handful of similar cases involving BLM land, and at the punishment for whatever transgressions might have occurred in order to see how consistent, or otherwise, the agency has been.

Tim DeChristopher

The Crime: In an act of civil disobedience, the 27-year-old DeChristopher bid $1.8 million in 2008 for Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases, without intending to pay for them, in an effort to block the sale to drillers. He was charged with violations of the Federal On-Shore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and of making false statements.

The Verdict: DeChristopher was found guilty on both felony counts.

The Sentence: He was given two years in jail and three years of probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Tim DeChristopher speaks at a press conference when more than 400 organizations and leaders delivered a historic letter to the White House on asking President Obama to stop new federal fossil fuel leasing on public lands and oceans in the United States.
Suchat Pederson

Phil Lyman and Monte Wells

The Crime: San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Lyman organized and participated in an ATV ride on BLM land closed to motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon in order to protest the “jurisdictional creep of the federal government.” Lyman and Wells, a local blogger who publicized Lyman's calls for the protest and participated in the ride, were each charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, and for violating federal regulations by riding past the closure.

The Verdict: Lyman and Wells were found guilty of both federal misdemeanor counts.

The Punishment: Lyman was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years of probation and fined $1,000. Wells got 5 days in jail and three months of probation along with a $500 fine. The two must together pay a total of $96,000 in restitution for damage done to resources during the ride. Ironically, the damage occurred on a portion of trail on which Lyman didn’t even ride. It was Ryan Bundy, in fact, who led a renegade group of protesters onto the more sensitive area, against Lyman’s wishes.

People drive off-road vehicles on public lands closed to motorized vehicles during the Recapture Canyon protest.
Jonathan Thompson

Carrie and Mary Dann

The Crime: Beginning in 1973, the two Western Shoshone elders grazed their cattle on federal land, refusing to pay grazing fees because they said the land was never legally ceded to the feds. In 1974, the BLM charged them with unauthorized livestock grazing and for making improvements on public land.

The Verdict: The Dann case wended its way through the courts throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and focused on whether the federal government had properly paid the tribes for the land in question. The Supreme Court ultimately decided that there had been a legal transfer of land to the feds. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on the other hand, ruled in favor of the Danns. Still, in 1998, an administrative judge shot down the Danns’ appeal.

The Punishment: In 1992, the BLM rounded up 250 of the Danns’ horses, and, after a standoff, arrested their brother, Clifford, after he tried to set himself on fire. In 1998, the BLM ordered the Danns to pay $354,916; the Danns themselves said that overdue grazing fees added up to far more than that. After they refused to pay, the BLM rounded up more than 500 head of the Danns’ cattle and horses and auctioned them off.

Carrie, left, and Mary Dann on their ranch near Crescent Valley, Nevada, in 2002.
AP Photo/Laura Rauch


Steven Dwight Hammond and Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr.

The Crime: The two were charged and indicted (pdf) by a grand jury on nine counts, including conspiracy, arson, creating risk of injury and tampering with a witness in connection with four different fires they allegedly set on public lands near their Harney County, Oregon, ranch in 2001 and 2006.

The Verdict: Each was found guilty of one count of using fire to damage property of the United States, related to the 2001 fire, and Steven Hammond was also found guilty of the same charge relating to one of the 2006 fires. The government dismissed two of the counts as part of a deal with the defendants, and the two were found not guilty on all other charges.

The Punishment: They were originally sentenced to three months (Dwight) and 12 months (Steven) and, in a separate deal, fined $400,000. But the jail sentences were far less than the minimum required by the statute under which they were prosecuted. So federal attorneys appealed the sentencing. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent them back for re-sentencing last October, where each got five year sentences (with credit for time served). They reported to federal prison Jan. 4, 2016.

Dwight Hammond speaks to reporters outside his home in Burns, Oregon, days before he turned himself into Terminal Island prison in California.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Cliven Bundy

The Crime: The southern Nevada rancher has defiantly refused to pay federal grazing fees since at least 1993, and continued to put his cattle on land that had been permanently closed to grazing. In 2014, the situation came to a head when heavily armed, self-described patriots converged on the Bundy Ranch to fend off BLM officers who had come to confiscate Bundy’s cattle.

The Verdict: First the BLM and then no fewer than three federal judges found that Bundy was trespassing and ordered him to remove his cows. They also determined that he owes anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million in back grazing fees.

The Punishment: After Bundy’s continual refusal to remove his cows or pay the money owed, BLM contractors showed up to confiscate his cattle, as they had done with the Danns. But a heavily armed group of supporters converged on the ranch, threatening the federal officers at gunpoint. The BLM backed down, returned the cattle and left. Bundy — and those “defending” him — have yet to be prosecuted. The cattle yet roam free.

Cliven Bundy speaks at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education.
Gage Skidmore

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. 

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