Trump Pardons Oregon Ranchers Whose Case Inspired Wildlife Refuge Takeover

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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 anger over 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 occupation, led by the Bundy family, drew hordes of militia members who commandeered government buildings and vehicles in tactical gear and long guns, promising to defend the family.

The pardon of the father and son, 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.

“We are so grateful to the president for righting this injustice,” said Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

Mr. Rosa said the pardon was the result of a months-long effort by agricultural groups like his to persaude the president — and he said that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had been among the ranchers’ strongest supporters.

“I had the opportunity to have a private meeting with him,” Mr. Rosa said of the interior secretary. “I mentioned to him the Hammond situation. He was well aware of it, agreed that the Hammonds were good people, and said he would talk to the president and give his blessing to release the Hammonds from prison.”

The pardons undo an Obama administration appeal to impose longer sentences for the Hammonds. And it drew immediate criticism from environmental groups and their supporters, who said it could imperil the rule of law on public lands.

“This is so very wrong,” said Joan Anzelmo, a former superintendent of Colorado National Monument, in a message on Twitter. “No one is safe from from felons with friends in high places. Terrible. Dangerous. Wrong.”

The federal government owns about half the acres in the Western United States, and the policies of Mr. Obama often drew ire from ranchers and others who work and live on these lands. His administration blocked new coal leases, imposed moratoriums on uranium drilling near the Grand Canyon, placed an unprecedented amount of land and sea under heightened federal protection — and prosecuted the Hammonds.

Mr. Trump, in contrast,has taken a favorable tone to those who want to loosen regulation on federal lands, and he has been 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.

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The Hammond pardons represent a step that direction.

“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.”

In a pointed criticism of the Obama administration, Ms. Sanders added: “The previous administration, however, filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison. This was unjust.”

Dwight Steven Hammond live in high desert Eastern Oregon, where they own about 13,000 acres of private land and once ran cattle on 26,000 acres of public land.

Both have a history of conflict with federal officials. Both were convicted for a 2001 fire that burned more than 100 acres of federal land. While the Hammonds said it was designed to control invasive species, witnesses at theor trial testified that the arson occurred after Steven and a hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer. The jury was told that Steven handed out matches and told allies to “light up the whole country on fire.”

Steven were also convicted of setting a second fire, in 2006, which he said was meant to manage the spread of wildfires.

The pair wasconvicted 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.

Word of this second imprisonment soon reached the Bundy family, a sprawling ranching clan based in Bunkerville, Nev., that had emerged as a symbol of the most extreme version of the push against federal land control.

Angered by the Hammond case, two of the Bundy brothers traveled to Oregon and stormed the Malheur wildlife refuge in what turned into a standoff with federal officials.

Many of those who joined the protest were members of unofficial militias who carried long guns and pistols and dressed as if at war. The occupation resulted in the death of a rancher from Arizona

The Hammonds, however, never asked for the Bundys or the militiamen, and amid it all, quietly headed to prison.

The pardons will shave some time off the Hammonds’ sentences — Dwight Hammond has served three years and Steven Hammond has served four.

Ryan Bundy, one of the occupation leaders, hailed the president’s announcement of the pardons as a victory, the latest in a string of wins for his family. Mr. Bundy was ultimately acquitted for his role in the takeover, and is now running for governor of Nevada.

“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” he said. . “It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a long time coming. That is good news.”

But 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 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.

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 1996 terrorism statute, passed after the Oklahoma City bombing, that imposed five-year mandatory minimum sentences for arson on federal property.

The government had other charging options — ones that imposed little or no prison time — and the decision to go with the terrorism charge raised eyebrows across the region, even among those with faith in the federal justice system.

The first federal judge on the Hammond case, Michael Hogan, said such a sentence would “shock the conscience.”

The Hammonds’ petitions for clemency included long letters from friends and farmers’ groups, as well as their local sheriff, Dave Ward.

“It is my humble opinion that justice would be better served if these gentlemen were afforded the opportunity to return home,” he wrote. Their release, he added, would “set an example that along with being a nation of laws, we are a nation of compassion and forgiveness.”

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

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