This week President Donald Trump pardoned a pair of Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, whose prison re-sentencing sparked the much-publicized 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and thrust the Bundy Family—staunch supporters of privatizing federally managed land, a position opposed by most outdoorsmen—into the national spotlight. Some backpackers, campers, climbers, outdoorsmen, and other users of national wilderness might, not unreasonably, see the pardons as support for anti-government extremists like the Bundys, who want to see the 640 million acres of federal public land that belongs to every U.S. citizen privatized and made off-limits forever.
Some background: Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond were convicted of starting two fires—one in 2001 and one in 2006—that damaged public lands in Oregon where they held grazing rights. The fires weren’t mishaps. Steven set the 2001 fire, which burned 139 acres, to cover up poaching, according to federal prosecutors. At Steven’s trial, a hunting guide, a hunter, and the hunter’s father testified that they saw the Hammonds illegally slaughter a deer herd on public property. “At least seven deer were shot with others limping or running from the scene,” a Department of Justice statement read. Moreover, a teenage relative of the Hammonds testified that Steven handed him a box of matches and told him to “light up the whole country on fire.”
Then, in 2006, Steven set a defensive fire to protect his winter wheat field, despite a countywide burn ban, and later admitted to as much. Dwight was sentenced to three months in prison, while Steven’s actions earned him a year and day—lenient sentences, all things considered. The controversy began in earnest in 2015, when the U.S. Attorneys Office appealed the Hammonds’ sentences, pushing for longer jail time, since the pair’s original sentences didn’t meet the five-year mandatory minimum for arson on federal land. The U.S. Attorneys Office won the appeal, outraging anti-government groups, who claimed federal overreach.
It was in response to this re-sentencing that Ammon Bundy, whose family had bristled at federal regulations for years, and a group of armed supporters decided to seize the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to call attention to what they saw as an injustice. (The Hammonds, for their part, contended that the Bureau of Land Management had targeted them unfairly.) The 41-day Malheur standoff resulted in the death of an occupier.
So why would Trump pardon the Hammonds, who clearly broke the law, and why now? The simplest explanation: The midterm elections are coming up and “federal overreach” is a talking point that strikes a chord with Trump supporters, particularly those in the rural West, as the Washington Post notes.
During the 2016 Presidential election, President Trump told Field & Stream that, if elected, he’d support keeping federal public lands in the hands of U.S. citizens. But since taking office, he has repeatedly undermined this pledge, to the glee of anti-government and anti-land types.
So now—with anti-public-land sentiments simmering and with the midterm elections looming—the President seems keen on further capitalizing, or at least not dissuading, the anti-public-land sentiments in the West, a platform on which many Western legislatures campaign, to his and his party’s benefit; in other words, the President likely pardoned the Hammonds thinking doing so would secure himself and other Republicans some votes.
By pardoning the Hammonds, however, the President is likely to further embolden the anti-government extremists, a conern that Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, echoed in a statement. (The fact that the Hammonds were trying to cover up poaching adds insult to injury for outdoorsmen.) In a video posted to Facebook this week, Ammon Bundy and his wife, Lisa, called the Hammonds’ pardoning “wonderful” and expressed gratitude for President Trump. Lisa later wrote that it was “another miracle.”
Land Tawney, president and CEO of the sportsmen group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, was quick to pick up on the significance of the President’s pardons. The White House’s decision “sends a message of tolerance for lawbreakers who would debase and diminish our public lands and waters,” he said in a statement, adding that the Bundys and their supporters used violence and unlawfulness in an attempt to steal from the American people. “We are disappointed in the President’s decision and urge the administration to reaffirm its support of our shared landscapes, the fish and wildlife that inhabit them, and the citizens who jointly own and access them.”
What’s more, the pardons also come a week after U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah erroneously called public lands in the West a playground for “Eastern elites” and advocated for a new Homestead Act that would allow housing developments to be built on public lands. “Finally, our long-term goal must be the transfer of federal lands to the states,” he tweeted on Saturday.
The debate over protecting federal land has been going on for years. But, until Senator Lee’s recent comments and President Trump’s pardons yesterday, talk about privatizing these lands had somewhat quieted in recent months. The struggle for these lands is not over, though. We’re hearing about all this now, again, because an election is coming, and President Trump is trying to rally the anti-government supports who helped get him and his cohort elected and who, if they had it their way, would like to restrict every U.S. citizen’s access to public land. The timing of Trump’s pardons was no mistake, and the message they sent was clear.