Once again, we are seeing a government agency use its powers to increase its landholdings, in this case the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. When private landholders whose property abutted the Refuge refused to sell, the government diverted water causing lakes to flood homes, corrals, barns and grazing land. It then swooped in to buy the ranches whose owners were now going broke.
The Hammond family land was one of the few ranches left. The government began to barricade roads and revoke grazing permits. In 2010, in a final act of ultimate legal pressure, the government filed suit against the Hammonds charging them based upon two “arsons” in 2001 and 2006 which began on the Hammond’s land but spread to the Refuge. The trial judges found that the 2001 fire damaged juniper trees and sagebrush whose value might total $100, and the 2006 fire burned about an acre of public land. The Hammonds were charged using the Federal Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (just a little over the top, don’t you think?) which requires a five year prison term.
The Hammonds entered into a plea agreement with the government which accepted the jury’s verdict and waived their appeal rights believing the plea agreement would end the case. The trial court refused to apply the mandatory five year sentence finding it did not fit the crime and violated the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Hammonds (son and father) then served their terms of one year and three months, respectively.
Here comes the stinky part: The U.S. Attorney appealed the trial judge’s decision, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to order the Hammonds back to prison to serve the five year term. At this same time, the Hammonds were struggling to pay a $400,000 federal government civil settlement, the terms of which gave the government the right of first refusal to purchase the Hammond property if they couldn’t pay the money.
Ranchers and farmers are some of the hardest working folks in our society. It’s a difficult life: long hours, low wages, physically draining, tied to the whims of nature—you have to love the lifestyle to keep doing it year after year. They are becoming an ever increasing minority who are financially incapable of fighting against an oppressive legal system funded by the federal government. That is why it is so important that they not be forgotten. Yes, the Hammonds did a foolish thing regarding the fires. But the ultimate price of the damage done to federal land in no way equates to what the federal government has demanded as its revenge on the Hammonds.
And by the way, how many federal employees have gone to jail for fires on government land that have been allowed to spread to private property? We in the Methow Valley over the last two years are all too familiar with that “act of terrorism”.