SALEM, Ore. – Rugged individualists to some, dangerous arsonists to others, a father and son who were convicted of intentionally setting fires on public land in Oregon were pardoned Tuesday by President Donald Trump.
The pardon is raising concerns that it will encourage others to actively oppose federal control of public land, which is a sensitive issue in the U.S. West where the federal government owns almost 50 percent of the land.
Six years ago, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, part of a family of ranchers in the high desert of eastern Oregon, were convicted of arson. Their stiff prison sentences led armed protesters to seize a national wildlife refuge in 2016 in Oregon near the Hammond ranch.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, a well-known figure in the battle over public land and whose sons led the refuge takeover, welcomed the pardons, saying the Hammonds were victims of federal overreach.
“Now we’ve finally got a president of the United States who is paying attention to what is going on,” Bundy said.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the group Defenders of Wildlife, countered that the Hammonds were convicted of arson, a serious crime.
“Whatever prompted President Trump to pardon them, we hope that it is not seen as an encouragement to those who might use violence to seize federal property and threaten federal employees in the West,” Clark said.
While the Hammonds were regarded by land-rights activists as heroes, and victims of the federal government, federal prosecutors painted sinister portraits of them at their trial.
Witnesses testified that a 2001 arson fire occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered deer on federal Bureau of Land Management property.
One said Steven Hammond handed out matches with instructions to “light up the whole country,” and another testified that Hammond barely escaped the roaring flames.
The fire burned 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The jury also convicted Steven Hammond for a 2006 blaze that prosecutors said began when he started several back fires, violating a burn ban, to save his winter feed after lightning started numerous fires nearby.
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 called for mandatory five-year sentences for the convictions. But U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan said such a lengthy sentence “would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality … it would be a sentence which would shock the conscience to me.”
Hogan instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven Hammond to a year and one day. However, in October 2015, a federal appeals court ordered them to be resentenced to the mandatory prison time.
The new sentences became a cause celebre for those who oppose federal control of public lands, leading to the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days in 2016.
One occupier was shot dead by Oregon State Police. They say he reached for a pistol at a roadblock.
The U.S. attorney for Oregon, Billy Williams, justified the mandatory sentences, saying they’re “intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place firefighters and others in jeopardy.” Williams declined to comment on the pardons.
Dozens of armed people, many from out of state, who occupied the refuge near the Hammond ranch said the father and son were victims of federal overreach. They changed the name of the refuge to Harney County Resource Center, reflecting their belief that the federal government has only a limited right to own property within a state.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, two sons of Cliven Bundy, and five other defendants were acquitted in 2016 by a federal jury in Portland on charges stemming from the takeover.
In a statement Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the five-year sentences for the Hammonds “unjust.”
“Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond,” she said.
“Our family is grateful to the president and all who worked to make this possible,” the Hammond family said in a statement.
Lyle Hammond, another of Dwight Hammond’s sons, said Tuesday that his father and brother have been released from a federal prison south of Los Angeles but he didn’t know their whereabouts.
Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon said Trump’s action is “a win for justice, and an acknowledgement of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West.”
Oregon Wild, which works to protect and restore Oregon wildlands, wildlife and waters, sees a darker impact from the pardon.
“From the Bundys to logging and oil companies, special interests are working with the Trump administration to dismantle America’s public lands heritage, and this will be viewed as a victory in that effort,” spokesman Arran Robertson said.