(Courthouse News Service) Over and over during a 41-day armed standoff that terrified many locals, leader Ammon Bundy listed his demands: Hand ownership of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge over to local ranchers and free two men convicted of starting fires that spread to public land and imperiled the lives of firefighters. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump granted one of those wishes.
Trump pardoned Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son, Steven, 49, after U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, championed their case in a June 29 phone call with the president. Walden has long been a supporter of the Hammonds. During the 2016 standoff, Walden gave an impassioned speech in support of the Bundys’ cause.
“How do you have faith in a government that doesn’t ever listen to you?” Walden asked on the floor of the U.S. House. “To my friends across eastern Oregon, I will always fight for you. Hopefully the country, through this, understands we have a real problem in America, with how we manage our lands and how we are losing them.”
Public lands advocates worried Tuesday that the pardons gave free rein to extremists who are willing to imperil the lives of federal workers to prove a point.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities said Tuesday that President Trump “has once again sided with lawless extremists who believe that public land does not belong to all Americans.”
The Hammonds were convicted of starting two fires, one in 2001 that the government said was meant to cover up illegal poaching, and another in 2006 during a burn ban that spread to adjacent public land and could have harmed firefighters there.
Federal prosecutors charged the Hammonds under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act – a law that carries mandatory five-year minimum sentences. But U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan deemed that punishment to be too harsh.
In 2012, Dwight Hammond served three months in prison and his son served one year. The government appealed the sentences and U.S. Chief District Judge Ann Aiken ordered the men to finish out the five-year minimum sentence.
In a statement Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the government appeal that sent the men back to prison “overzealous” and “unjust.” The pardon means the elder Hammond will be released having served about three years in prison, while his son will have served about four years.
In late 2015, Ammon, Ryan and father Cliven Bundy had successfully evaded criminal charges for their roles in a 2014 armed standoff near the family’s Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch over Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay over $1 million in fees to graze his cattle on public land. Then they heard about the Hammond case – and surrounding it was the rural outrage the Bundys sought to advance their extremist views on land ownership.
The Bundys believe the federal government has no right to own land – an argument that has been dismissed by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Ammon Bundy testified during his trial that God told him to help the Hammonds, a revelation that led federal defenders in the case to joke that God himself was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.
Bundy launched the Malheur standoff just after a peaceful community rally in support of the Hammonds, who were about to turn themselves in to serve their sentences. After the rally in Harney County, in the remote high desert of the southwest corner of Oregon, Ammon Bundy told the crowd he was headed to Malheur to take “a hard stand” against the federal government for what he called its overreach in the case.
The standoff ended with one man dead – Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon State Police at a traffic stop that also netted the arrests of the standoff leadership. And while some of the militants at the standoff pleaded guilty and a few were found guilty of misdemeanors, the government was unable to convict the Bundys on charges related to either of the two standoffs. A federal jury acquitted Ammon and Ryan Bundy and a handful of their followers on all charges related to the Oregon occupation. And in January, U.S. District Judge Gloria M. Navarro dismissed all charges against the Bundys in the case the government brought over the 2014 standoff in Nevada.
Free from the threat of criminal charges for two armed standoffs against the government, and with one of their demands met, Ammon Bundy on Tuesday praised the impending release of the Hammonds in a Facebook post, but said the pardons didn’t go far enough. He issued a veiled call for the release of his followers who remain in jail.
“All glory goes to our Heavenly Father for this tender mercy!” Ammon Bundy wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday morning. “This is a step in the right direction, let’s remember those still suffering whom went to expose the atrocities of the Hammonds.”