Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Hammonds and the Heavy Hand of Federal Land Management

One of the biggest political issues in the Western United States is Federally owned and managed land as it pertains to use by the public for recreation and by ranchers who lease Federal lands, often adjacent to their own private property, in order to graze cattle and other livestock.

It give me no pleasure to write derogatory comments about the US Government or it's agents. I was once a soldier and later a Federal Conservation Law Enforcement Officer and worked with various Federal Law Enforcement agencies and State game law and land management agencies including the BLM, all of whom I got along with well and thought highly of. The BLM office I worked with always struck a balance between helping the ranchers who won grazing bids and performing effective management of the grazing units.

Most of us either have a passing knowledge of, or have seen news coverage on the Bundy standoff in Southern Nevada as well as the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Central Oregon, where in January 2016 where armed men, one of them Ammon Bundy - son of Cliven Bundy the central figure in the Nevada BLM standoff, did what they did in order to get a platform for their views that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal agencies are constitutionally required to turn over most of the federal public land they manage to the individual states. This group (referred to as militants in most news media) believed they could help their cause as well as protest the government's prosecution and sentencing of the Hammonds, two Central Oregon ranchers convicted of terrorism through federal land arson, even though the Hammonds publically stated that they did not want their help.

I am not writing about the Bundy's, the Nevada standoff nor the Malheur Refuge occupation. I am however writing about what I think is a much clearer cut version of injustice - and that is what happened to the Hammonds.

Dwight and Steven Hammond own the Hammond Ranch which is reported as 13,000 acres surrounding by State and Federal land, some of which the Hammonds leased for grazing rights. In 2001, the Hammonds conducted a controlled burn to mitigate an invasive plant species from taking over, and in 2016, set a back fire to protect their private property from a huge wildlands fire that was on federal property heading towards them. Both fires combined, burned less than 150 acres. While 150 acres may sound like alot, I assure you that while any fire is a concern due to it's potential to rapidly expand and threaten resources and life, 150 acres is a pretty small fire. I have been on crews of less than 6 men working much larger fires, so I know that smaller fires can be effectively and safely managed by two men. Men, I might add, who had an interest in seeing the land managed efficiently, and protected effectively, as their very livelihood rested on it.

Anyway, the Federal Government brought criminal and civil charges against the Hammonds, charging them under 18 USC § 844, the penalties section of 18 USC Chapter 40 - Importation, Manufacture, Distribution and Storage of Explosive Materials, or often called the "Anti-Terrorism Act" which was designed to prosecute terrorists targeting infrastructure.

18 USC § 844 (Penalties): Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or any institution or organization receiving Federal financial assistance, shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both.

In the criminal case against the Hammonds, the presiding Judge evidently understood what the intent of the law and penalties were for, and reduced the minimum sentence for Dwight and Steven Hammond to 90 days and 366 days, respectively.

The BLM and the Malheur Refuge Land Manager appealed the "short" sentences to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco,...sentences that really should have never occurred in the first place, which resulted in harsher sentences of five years for each and a large fine - in the area of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the Hammonds had to agree to offer their ranch to the government first if they ended up selling out.

There are several things that will bring more perspective to what most people would already see has a transgression of justice:

~ The Hammond Ranch has been planned for acquisition by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under their future planning processes, showing desire and intent to obtain the Hammond Ranch even though the Hammonds had no intent to sell. Look at the map and you can see why the Hammond's ranch is desirable by the Government;
~ That the BLM manager and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Manager, both who represented their respective local organizations within the federal government, in appealing the Hammond's earlier shorter sentences in favor for longer sentences, are a couple, married or otherwise - this is what the FBI calls a "clue", and in this case a conflict of interest;
~ The Federal Government offered to drop the, basically trumped up charges, if the Hammonds would give the government their private land;
~ The Hammonds Grazing Permit is being challenged by the BLM and has not be released to the Hammonds;
~ The most conspiratorial views would think the government initiated a thinly veiled blackmail threat - threat of prosecution and imprisonment, or land sale. The Hammonds elected to bow up against the government, standing for their rights,......they paid a price.

I think that no matter what your views are on grazing or land conservation, or politically, whether you are a liberal or a conservative, I just think that most people would agree that the intent and sentences under the Anti-Terrorism Act were not meant to punish ranchers who were just, in the absence of proper government land management, ended up using common practices to decent land management and protection goals. I am asking all readers of this site to take a moment and send an e-mail to their House and Senate representatives asking to remedy this.

There is a bill introduced by Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR) on 14 July 2016, titled - H.R.5815 - Resource Management Practices Protection Act of 2016, that would prohibit what happened to the Hammonds from happening to other law abiding hard working ranchers, by barring prosecution under 18 USC § 844, in certain cases such as: the damage or destruction, or attempt to damage or destroy, by means of a fire that is set by a person to property owned by the person to prevent an imminent threat of damage to that property; or as part of any other generally accepted practice for managing vegetation on timber, grazing, or farm land; and it (the fire) does not pose a serious threat of injury to any individual or damage to any building, dwelling, or vehicle of the United States; and does not result in death or serious bodily injury to any individual.

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