WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday pardoned a pair of Oregon cattle ranchers who had been serving sentences for arson on federal land — sentences that set off the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in 2016.
Dwight L. Hammond, now 76, and his son, Steven D. Hammond, 49, became a cause célèbre that inspired an antigovernment group’s battle with the federal government over its control of rural land in Oregon. The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge resulted in the death of a rancher from Arizona.
The Hammonds have a long history of conflict with the federal government, but many felt their sentences for the 2001 and 2006 fires were unfair.
“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. “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. But the pardons suggest the Trump administration’s support of ranchers in the battle over federal lands and also undo an Obama administration appeal to impose longer sentences for the Hammonds.
“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” said Ryan Bundy who helped lead the occupation of the federal wildlife refuge near the Hammond ranch that was meant to protest the government’s treatment of the Hammonds and grew into a protest of federal land policies. “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 and then released. But a federal appeals court in 2015 ruled that they had been improperly sentenced and ordered them to serve more time. The Hammonds surrendered to federal authorities in January 2016. Their lawyers called on then-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 Hammonds are the sixth and seventh people to receive pardons from Mr. Trump. In all his pardons, Mr. Trump bypassed the typical process for granting pardons (a five-year waiting period for requests to be made to the Department of Justice) 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.
“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.)
In defense of the Hammonds, Mr. Bundy and his brother, Ammon, inspired dozens of people to converge at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016, many of them members of self-styled 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.
The occupation lasted weeks. Ultimately, a jury acquitted the Bundys for their role in the takeover, and Ryan Bundy now lives on the family ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., and he is running for governor.
After learning about the pardons, Mr. Bundy said the occupation two years ago was “worth it.”
“We went there to wake people up to these types of atrocities,” he said. “If we had not done that would it have gotten the attention to come down to what it is today?”
Eileen Sullivan reported from Washington, and Julie Turkewitz from Denver. Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington.