Trump Pardons Oregon Men Whose Case Inspired Wildlife Refuge Takeover

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday pardoned a pair of Oregon cattle ranchers who had been serving out sentences for arson on federal land — punishments that inspired the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in 2016 and brought widespread attention to a movement against federal land management in the Western United States.

The ranchers, Dwight L. Hammond, now 76, and his son, Steven D. Hammond, 49, became a cause célèbre for an antigovernment group’s weekslong standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The group’s armed occupation of the refuge resulted in the death of a rancher from Arizona.

The Hammonds have a long history of conflict with the federal government, which led some of their supporters to argue that their sentences for the 2001 and 2006 fires were unfair and reflected the need to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and give it to the states.

“The Hammonds are multigeneration cattle ranchers in Oregon imprisoned in connection with a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement on Tuesday. “The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges.”

The pardons will shave some time off the Hammonds’ five-year sentences — Dwight Hammond has served three years and Steven Hammond has served four. They also undo an Obama administration appeal to impose longer sentences for the Hammonds and suggest that the Trump administration supports ranchers in the battle over federal lands.

“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” said Ryan Bundy, who helped lead the occupation of the federal wildlife refuge near the Hammond ranch. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a long time coming. That is good news.”

Some conservation groups strongly opposed the decision.

“Pardoning the Hammonds sends a dangerous message to America’s park rangers, wildland firefighters, law enforcement officers and public lands managers,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement. “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.”

The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 and served a short time in prison. But a federal appeals court ruled in 2015 that they had been improperly sentenced and ordered them to return to prison and serve more time. The Hammonds surrendered to federal authorities in January 2016, and their lawyers called on President Barack Obama to grant clemency, arguing that the five-year sentences were excessive.

“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West,” Ms. Sanders said in the statement, which was issued while Mr. Trump was en route to Brussels for a NATO meeting. “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these grants of executive clemency.”

The federal government owns about half the land in the Western United States, which has long been a frustration for ranchers and others who use it to make a living and are subjected to rules set by federal officials, rules they sometimes disagree with.

For decades, a subset of Westerners and their political allies on county commissions, in statehouses and in Congress have lobbied for more local control of those lands. And some have called for them to be turned over to the state.

In recent years the Bundy family, a sprawling clan based in Bunkerville, Nev., has emerged as a symbol of the most extreme version of this push for local control. First, in 2014, they held a highly public standoff with federal officers outside their ranch, after federal authorities tried to confiscate their cattle. (The cattle had been grazing illegally on federal land.)

Then, inspired by the Hammond case, they stormed the Malheur wildlife refuge in what turned into a standoff with federal officials. Many of those who joined the Bundys in protest were members of unofficial militias who carried long guns and pistols and dressed as if at war.

At the time, the Bundys said this type of action was necessary to bring national attention to the Hammonds’ plight — and to the plight of ranchers everywhere. Ultimately, a jury acquitted the Bundys for their role in the takeover. Ryan Bundy now lives on the family ranch in Bunkerville, and is running for governor.

Mr. Obama’s policies on federally controlled public lands, including placing a record amount of land and sea under heightened federal protection, served as the family’s foil.

Mr. Trump has taken a more favorable tone to the calls for local control, aided by Mr. Zinke. In December, the president sharply reduced the size of two conservation areas in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. It was the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history.

The pardon of the Hammonds, who have become a symbol of perceived rural persecution, is the latest sign of Mr. Trump’s concessions to those who say the federal government too often oversteps in the Western part of the country.

The Hammonds are the sixth and seventh people to receive pardons from Mr. Trump. In all his pardons, Mr. Trump bypassed the typical process (a five-year waiting period is required for requests to be made to the Justice Department) and passed over the more than 10,000 pardon and clemency applications. The president has the power to pardon anyone sentenced to a federal offense.

Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, said this month that the president was “seriously considering” pardoning the Hammonds, and on Tuesday he applauded the decision.

“Today is a win for justice and an acknowledgment of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West,” Mr. Walden said in a statement.

The Hammonds have said they set the fires to manage the spread of wildfires, a tactic Mr. Walden said was “something the federal government does all the time.”

Mr. Walden introduced legislation last year that he said would protect farmers like the Hammonds from being prosecuted as terrorists. (The men were prosecuted under a terrorism statute enacted in 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing and were subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.)

Eileen Sullivan reported from Washington, and Julie Turkewitz from Denver. Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington.

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