President pardons Harney County ranchers whose imprisonment launched refuge takeover

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said he was pleased that President Donald Trump commuted the federal prison sentences of rancher Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Tuesday. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

WILLOW CREEK – Matt Rockwell was moving cattle Tuesday morning when his cell phone pinged.

The local rancher and president of the Malheur County Cattlemen’s Association read the message on his phone.

President Donald Trump had just pardoned the federal prison sentences of rancher Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, whose incarceration for starting a fire on federal land sparked anti-government protests and the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. They ranch adjacent to the refuge, southeast of Burns.

As soon as Rockwell finished with the cattle, he returned to his ranch house just outside of Willow Creek and turned on his computer to learn more.

“It is great news. I had been hearing rumblings but, you know, you are afraid to believe it until you see it for sure,” he said.

Rockwell said the pardon was vindication.

“I believe when the facts are revealed that the injustice becomes blatantly obvious to anyone,” said Rockwell.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican who lobbied the president for a decision, also celebrated the commutation.

“Today is a win for justice, and an acknowledgement of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West,” he wrote in a statement. “As ranchers across eastern Oregon frequently tell me, the Hammonds didn’t deserve a five-year sentence for using fire as a management tool, something the federal government does all the time.”

The Hammonds, who ranch in Harney County, faced federal arson charges in 2010, stemming from two incidents.

In 2001, a routine prescribed burn on private land spread to 139 acres of public land. Steve and Dwight Hammond had said they were trying to fight invasive juniper. Federal prosecutors later charged that the Hammonds started the fire to hide poaching and it got away from them.

In 2006, a lightning strike lit the range. Steven Hammond set backfires to protect the family’s ranch. Motive aside, prosecutors said he should not have started a fire during a countywide burn ban and near a camp of firefighters, who had to be airlifted out.

The Hammonds each served a few months in prison for the blazes. Those sentences were shorter than the five years mandated by federal law. Federal prosecutors appealed the shortened sentences, won, and a federal judge in 2015 ordered that the Hammonds must return to prison to complete five-year sentences.

That brought Ammon Bundy and other anti-government activists to Burns, where they insisted that the Hammonds not surrender to prison and that local authorities should provide them sanctuary. The Hammonds said at the time they wanted no part of such a plan, and surrendered to a federal prison in California.

Bundy and his followers then took over the refuge, where they and their supporters held court for weeks, openly carrying guns and broadcasting live manifestos on YouTube about federal overreach, land use issues and gun rights.

The occupation collapsed in January 2016 when law enforcement officers arrested the occupation leaders on U.S. Highway 395 north of Burns as they drove to a community forum in John Day. Arizona rancher Robert LaVoy Finicum, a leader of the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, was shot and killed. FBI Agent Joseph Astarita is facing trial in federal court on charges that he lied about shooting at Finicum’s truck.

Trump’s decision Tuesday ended the Hammonds’ time in federal prison early but did not remove their arson convictions. A full pardon nullifies all effects of a conviction, such as a prison sentence or loss of voting rights, but does not remove the guilty finding from a person’s record, which only the courts have the power to do.

The schedule for the Hammonds release couldn’t be immediately established. Both are currently held at Terminal Island, a low-security federal prison near Los Angeles, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

State Sen. Cliff Bentz, who represents much of eastern Oregon, wrote letters last June to support commuting the Hammonds’ sentences, writing that “the mandatory penalty simply did not fit the crime.”

“The Hammond family, in addition to operating their ranch, ran a cattle hauling business and often provided these services to my brother’s, father’s and mother’s ranching operations.  We all know from firsthand experience that Dwight Hammond is an honest man,” he wrote. “Exercise of clemency power in this instance can function as proof that the common man can still be heard and not have to suffer unreasonably the consequences of protest, or in Dwight’s case, the consequences of trying to protect his ranch by starting a backfire on federal land.”

Bentz sympathized with the Hammonds “attempting to protect their land,” but said “there are consequences” for the illegal means they chose.

“Their community stepped up. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of letters written,” he said in an interview Tuesday with the Enterprise. “They are extremely fortunate to have a president who understands.”

State Rep. Lynn Findley of Vale, also said “welcome home” to the Hammonds in a press statement.

“I want to take this opportunity to personally thank President Trump for allowing these two men to return to their families and their communities – communities in which they are supported and esteemed by their neighbors, local law enforcement, and other ranchers,” he wrote.

Rockwell, the cattlemen’s association leader, sees the pardons as part of an ongoing process to expose government wrongdoing.

“It has been a long process. There has been vindication at every turn as we’ve come down the line exposing the corruption that is taking place where the Hammonds are concerned,” said Rockwell.

At the time of the refuge takeover, Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe was in Burns to help police the situation and served as president of the Oregon State Sheriffs Association. He said then that the conduct of Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer “hampers the effort to end this.” Palmer had called for the federal government to cede to the militants’ demands. And after meeting with occupation leaders, he did not share details with other law enforcement leaders.

Wolfe also wrote a letter urging for the Hammonds to be pardoned, sending it to several members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, the United States Attorney for Oregon and the president. On Tuesday, he said he was pleased about the pardons.

“I felt like they were dealt an injustice. Fortunately, they have been pardoned. Unfortunately, it has been a slow process,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe said he expressed “concern” to several different prosecutors and to Walden.

“They were good, hardworking people. They have ran good operations, good businesses. I have never heard anyone say anything bad about their business practices. I am very excited they can get back at it,” said Wolfe.

Not everyone was happy with the president’s decision. The Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization based in Denver, has said the pardon “sends a dangerous message.”

“They are putting out a clear message that they are siding with the Bundys and siding with arsonists and extremists,” said Aaron Weiss, the group’s media director. “They are not on the side of park rangers, land managers, firefighters and the American people.”

He said his group is actively monitoring the anti-government groups that occupied the Malheur refuge in the Hammonds’ name.

“One of the greatest ironies in all of this, is that … it happened on the site of where the High Desert Partnership was created” to bring land managers and ranchers to work together, he said.

Bentz said he saw two core lessons from the Hammonds’ case and the occupation that followed.

“If you want to deal with the federal government, you must do so very carefully as it holds a great deal of power,” he said. “You want to tread lightly, obey the law.”

He also urged federal leaders to use their power thoughtfully to avoid federal overreach, saying prosecutors, in particular, should “use more discretion.”

“You need to seek out folks who are experienced and understand how to manage the power that they are given when they get into these positions,” he said.

Reporters Kristine de Leon and Carolyn Agrimis contributed to this story.