Trump's Pardoning of Two Oregon Ranchers Is a Victory for the Bundys—and an Ominous Loss for Public-Lands Advocates

There is nothing more #MAGA than cowboys running the West.
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Harney County is a remote area of Oregon, closer to Nevada than to Portland.

Harney County is a remote area of Oregon, closer to Nevada than to Portland.

President Donald Trump waved his pardon wand a ninth and 10th time on Tuesday morning, granting clemency to two controversial Western figures: father and son ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond.

How did a couple of cattle ranchers from Oregon get the attention of a millionaire hotel-tycoon president? If you think about Trump's slogan—"Make America Great Again"—the Hammonds' story fits perfectly with the mentality it embodies: The future is bad, the way things were done in the past was better. And there is nothing more #MAGA than cowboys running the West.

After the Hammonds were convicted of arson on federal lands in 2012, they were taken to prison, released, then brought back to prison. And when armed men took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, they touted the Oregon ranchers' legal issues as the reason why. But the Hammonds' story is a lot more complicated than that.

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To understand Trump's pardon, you've got to look back to one of the oldest fights in the American West—one that you could argue started in 1976 with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. That policy handed the keys over to the Bureau of Land Management to ensure that public lands were not only being used for ranching, but for outdoor recreation and the protection of species. Some ranchers didn't like that, claiming the government was trying to put them out of business. Many of those ranchers called themselves "Sagebrush Rebels" and advocated for federal land to be transferred into state control. By the 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan and anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior James Watt in power, the rebellion cooled off.

Back when Trump was just a guy in Pizza Hut ads, the Hammonds were getting into fights over fences, cattle, and permits with federal employees working at the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, run by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, required that the Hammonds get a permit—or at least call in advance—to trail their cattle over the refuge lands toward a pasture. But the elder Hammond didn't like this policy—or a fence that separated his ranch from the refuge.

That fence is where a lot of the Hammonds' fights began.

As early as November of 1986, Dwight Hammond was writing threatening letters to refuge staff, saying that he would "pack a shotgun in his saddle and no one will challenge me!" if he didn't get unrestricted access to the refuge. The next year, he told staff to ensure that the sheriff was present during interactions between him and the staff, so there would be a witness to watch him "tear your head off and sh-- down the hole."

After Hammond was arrested when he blocked a crew from building more fences by parking heavy equipment in its way, things seemed to only worsen. Dwight Hammond told a reporter that "we are getting down to issues I was willing to die over." When he cut the fence and let his cattle through, Fish and Wildlife revoked his grazing permit altogether.

Fire had also been a problem for the ranchers. Controlled burns are one management tool used by ranchers and farmers to prevent wildfires and stimulate new plant growth—but several fires lit by the Hammonds burned out of control, and spread onto federal land. Two of those fires landed the Hammonds in court in 2012. Prosecutors argued that they weren't out-of-control fires, as the men claimed, but arson, and that one was lit to cover up an illegal deer hunt.

Arson of federal property—which includes the federally owned public lands that make up nearly half of the Western U.S. and 53 percent of Oregon—comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. However, when the men were handed their jail time by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, he commented that five years behind bars would "shock the conscience," and gave the men less time. The Hammonds did their time and left jail.

That's the end, right? Hardly.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Hammonds' light sentence, and said they had to go back to jail in early 2016.

And that's when the Hammonds' story becomes intertwined with the story of some of the most controversial figures in the West: the Bundy family of southern Nevada.

Cliven Bundy became known to the world in 2014 when he called militias from around the country to stand off with Bureau of Land Management agents near his ranch, who were coming to repossess his cattle. Bundy's cattle had been grazing on federal land, which is perfectly OK—if you pay for a permit. But Cliven hadn't paid grazing fees since 1993. In accordance with several court orders, BLM agents came to get the cows, but were ultimately deterred when they found themselves surrounded by people on horseback, many carrying guns. They released the impounded cows, and left.

But in the early hours of 2016, the eyes of the country focused on Burns, Oregon—a tiny, far-flung town closer to Nevada than the city lights of Portland—after a cowboy-hatted Ammon Bundy (one of Cliven's sons) hopped atop a snowbank and asked people to join him in taking a "hard stand" against the federal government.

Bundy's hard stand meant marching a group of armed men into a federal bird sanctuary—the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—and occupying it for the next 41 days. Bundy, in daily press conferences, told the media about the people's desire to see the public lands of Harney County, Oregon, returned to state control, and to see the Hammonds freed from federal custody. The Hammonds told the Bundys, and the militias that quickly joined them, that they didn't want their help—they'd go back to prison and serve their time. But the Bundys did it anyway.

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The Hammonds' pardon is a victory for the men, but also for the Bundys and other cattlemen who want to see ranchers run the West again—and a Department of the Interior that has defined itself by rolling back federal control of public lands.

The Oregon Cattlemen's Association released a statement Tuesday morning saying its members are "grateful to President Trump for providing long overdue justice to the Hammonds and are anxious to welcome Dwight and Steven home."

Former Harney County Judge Steve Grasty says there was a movement to free the Hammonds from federal custody long before the Bundys came to town. "I've always said, and never wavered from this, that [District Judge Hogan] screwed up and ... should be sanctioned. He should have a black mark on his name and his record. He violated the rules," he says. "I think putting them back the second time, there was no value in that for anybody."

"I'm glad it's over," Grasty says, "but the Bundys get no credit. They complicated this."

Some experts on domestic extremism say that the Hammonds' pardon is a dangerous gesture by the Trump administration.

"Pardoning the Hammonds, serial arsonists who repeatedly threatened federal employees over the span of decades, sends a terrible and dangerous signal to armed extremists that such actions are justified," says JJ MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism. “The militia movement right now is shopping for a cause, and this pardon means that their focus will likely return to public-land politics."

MacNab points to the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the acquittal of the Bundy brothers in Oregon, and the mistrial of the Bundy family in Nevada: "The anti-government extremist movement is more excited and confident than I've even seen [it] before. The more victories Trump hands them, the more violent they'll likely turn should the president be impeached, removed from office, or lose to a Democrat in the next general election."

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