Federal land managers, through aggressive land-use and grazing regulations, have for decades successfully pushed ranchers and miners off vast swaths of rural Western territory. The tension between bureaucrats and those seeking to earn a living off the land was the genesis for the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and its various offshoots, including the 2014 Bundy impasse near Bunkerville.
On Tuesday, two ranchers caught up in this longstanding conflict received a modicum of redemption when President Donald Trump pardoned them in a case involving massive government overreach.
Dwight Hammond, 76, and his 49-year-old son, Steven Hammond, owned a cattle ranch in eastern Oregon. In 2012, federal prosecutors targeted the pair after they failed to get permission before setting two fires on their property — one to clear trees, the other to check a wildfire — that later spread to patches of BLM land. Controlled burns are a common tactic for federal agencies, but never mind. The government was intent on making an example of the pair and charged them using federal anti-terrorism statutes.
A jury acquitted the Hammonds of most charges, but they were found guilty on two counts of arson. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — passed to punish terrorists who blow up or burn down government buildings — the Hammonds each faced a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. To his credit, the federal judge presiding over the trial refused to go along and gave them lighter terms, 90 days for the father and a year for the son. He noted that five years would be extremely disproportionate to the offense and “would shock the conscience.”
That should have been the end of it, but federal prosecutors — showing the same strain of vindictiveness that blew up in their faces during the Bundy trial — took the case to a higher court. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that the trial judge was duty bound to impose the statutory minimum, and the men were sent back to prison in 2015 after having completed their original terms.
Anger over the Hammond case led to a 41-day standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge involving two of Cliven Bundy’s sons. The Hammonds distanced themselves from that protest. In the meantime, the BLM in 2014 refused to renew grazing permits for the Hammond ranch, further threatening their livelihood, the Portland Oregonian reported.
In issuing the pardons, Mr. Trump said the “Hammonds are devoted family men, respected members of the local community and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement and farmers and ranchers across the West.”
Indeed, these men aren’t a danger to anyone. To charge them under anti-terrorism statutes for setting a couple of back burns on their own land was a gross abuse of prosecutorial power that only exacerbated the mistrust and animosity that too often characterizes the relationship between federal land managers and rural Westerners.
The president has righted a wrong by pardoning the Hammonds. Justice has been done.