Two Eastern Oregon ranchers are headed back to federal prison in conjunction with their 2012 conviction for committing arson on public land.
The case underscores the deep divide and often adversarial relationship western ranchers have with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies over grazing rights on public lands.
Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, were re-sentenced yesterday to five-year minimum prison terms for setting a fire that burned about 140 acres of BLM land near Diamond, Ore., according to a report in The Portland Oregonian.
The Hammonds were convicted in 2012, and Dwight served three months in prison, while Steven served one year, followed by three years of supervised release for each man.
The fire in question was set on the Hammonds’ land as a prescribed burn to control invasive species such as juniper trees and sagebrush on rangeland, but the fire spread to nearby BLM land.
The ranchers were subject to re-sentencing after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined the original prison terms were too lenient and did not follow sentencing guidelines mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which followed the Oklahoma City bombing and other deadly acts of domestic terrorism.
The appeals court rejected claims by the ranchers’ defense attorney that the federal arson statute was intended to punish terrorism, rather than burning to remove invasive species or improve rangeland.
The Hammonds were originally sentenced in October, 2012, by U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan, presiding in his last sentencing before leaving the bench, who said the Hammonds' conduct wasn't in keeping with the intentions of the law. He said a five-year prison term would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it’s “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”
In handing down Wednesday’s sentence, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken said she would offer leniency in sentencing if she could, but that wasn’t possible given the mandatory minimums and the jury’s decision to convict them of arson.
“The rules are there for a reason,” she said, according to a report in Capital Press.
The Hammonds have received support from the Oregon Farm Bureau, and president Barry Bushue called the sentence an example of “gross government overreach.”
In a statement on the OFB website, Bushue said the Hammond case “will have a chilling effect across the West among ranchers, foresters, and others who rely on federal allotments and permits. It will harm the positive relationship many ranchers and organizations have worked to forge with the BLM, and undermine the cooperative spirit most ranchers have brought to the bureau in helping the health of the range.”
The U.S. attorney prosecuting the Hammonds, Frank Papagni, argued for giving the ranchers the mandatory five-year sentence. “These grazing leases don’t give them the exclusive right to use these lands,” Papagni said. “It doesn’t give them the right to burn the property. It’s not theirs.”
But, Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, says, “To treat them as terrorists, we think, is horribly unjust and secondly, hypocritical. Why does the federal government need to get more?”
The Oregon Farm Bureau has a petition to support the Hammonds at www.savethehammonds.com.