- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2018

President Trump drew cheers Tuesday in the rural West by pardoning the Hammonds — father and son ranchers who became symbols of the Obama administration’s tight-fisted control of public lands and inspired the Bundy-led Oregon occupation.

The president issued full pardons for Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven, 49, who had been serving time under a U.S. anti-terrorism statute for setting what they described as brush-clearing fires that swept accidentally onto federal land in Harney County, Oregon.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Obama administration had “filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison. This was unjust.”

“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. “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these grants of executive clemency.”

The pardon comes as the latest sign that the tide may be turning for ranchers fighting what they see as prosecutorial overreach on federal land-management issues, a battle that raged during the Obama administration.

In January, a federal judge dismissed charges against Cliven Bundy and sons Ammon and Ryan for their role in the 2014 Nevada standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, citing “egregious” and “outrageous” misconduct by federal prosecutors.

In October 2016, a jury acquitted Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five co-defendants in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in which several dozen ranchers took over a vacant building to protest the Hammonds’ sentencing.

The Bundy Ranch thanked the president for “carrying out justice,” calling the Hammonds “great patriots.”

What infuriated supporters was that the Hammonds had already served time for their 2012 convictions, but were ordered back to prison in 2016 after federal prosecutors argued that the original sentences fell short of the mandatory minimum.

Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, praised Mr. Trump for “correcting a gross injustice … perpetrated by the Obama administration.”

“The outrageous prosecution of the Hammonds under the Antiterrorism Act of 1996 for lighting a backfire in order to protect their house, ranch buildings and grazing land was a new highwater mark in federal persecution of federal lands users in the Intermountain West,” Mr. Ebell said.

Meanwhile, environmentalists argued that the Hammonds were no angels — federal prosecutors had accused the father and son of setting the 2001 fire to cover up evidence of poaching — and that the pardon sent a “dangerous message.”

“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,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.

Former U.S. Attorney for Oregon Amanda Marshall, who prosecuted the Hammonds, also took issue with the pardon.

“It means their conviction doesn’t exist. I find that incredibly troubling,” Ms. Marshall told the Oregonian. “I think it’s a slap in the face to the people in Pendleton who served on that jury and a slap in the face to the Constitution.”

Hammonds ‘treated unfairly’

The Hammonds were expected to be released Tuesday from the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in San Pedro, California, said Oregon attorney Larry Matasar, who represents Steven Hammond.

Dwight Hammond has served about three years in prison and his son has served about four. They have also paid $400,000 in civil damages to the federal government to settle a related civil suit.

The White House said evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was “conflicting,” and noted the jury acquitted them on most of the charges.

Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who has fought for years on the Hammond family’s behalf, thanked Mr. Trump for “thoroughly reviewing the facts of this case, rightly determining the Hammonds were treated unfairly, and taking action to correct this injustice.”

He pointed out that U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan had resisted federal prosecutors over their request for five-year sentences, saying such a punishment “would shock the conscience,” but was overruled by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“For far too long, Dwight and Steven Hammond have been serving a mandatory minimum sentence that was established for terrorists,” said Mr. Walden, adding, “As ranchers across eastern Oregon frequently tell me, the Hammonds didn’t deserve a five-year sentence for using fire as a management tool, something the federal government does all the time.”

House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop, who called earlier this year for the BLM to investigate the prosecutorial misconduct that triggered the Bundy mistrial in Nevada, also praised the president’s move.

“I’m glad President Trump chose to weigh in on the unjust sentencing of the Hammonds. I wish the Hammonds well in returning to their families and local communities,” Mr. Bishop said.

In a statement, the Hammond family said Mr. Trump had “blessed our family” and blasted the federal government for its “overzealousness, and the kind of animus that has been directed at our family by federal officers for years.”

The family’s ranching operation has suffered during the imprisonment. In 2014, the BLM refused to renew a grazing permit, saying the Hammonds had an “unacceptable record of performance,” according to Tri-State Livestock News.

Susie Hammond, Dwight Hammond’s wife and Steven’s mother, said she received a call from Mr. Walden early Tuesday telling her that “it’s a done deal.”

“I’ve just been sitting here, on the phone since,” Ms. Hammond told the Oregonian. “I still can’t believe it. I won’t believe it until I see them.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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