President Donald Trump’s pardon of two Eastern Oregon ranchers convicted of arson for starting grass fires is thought by some to signify a reversal of what they say are hostile federal policies to industries reliant on public lands.
Others think it conveys a more passive approach to protecting natural resources.
Trump’s pardon of Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven Hammond, 49, on Tuesday means they’ll be released from prison before serving their full mandatory minimum five-year sentences for setting fire to public rangeland.
To their supporters, the reprieve indicates the Trump administration is turning away from an antagonistic approach toward cattle grazing on federal allotments.
“I think this is a positive sign for ranchers across the entire country. They will be treated fairly and there will be a change in philosophy that we welcome and respect,” said Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
However, others worry the pardons will embolden extremists who want to end or drastically reduce the federal government’s control over vast swaths of the West.
“They now think they have a friend in the White House who does not value public lands,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit that advocates protecting public land.
Originally, federal prosecutors charged the Hammonds in 2010 with burning more than 45,000 acres of federal land near their ranch in Diamond, Oregon, in blazes dating back to the 1980s.
Dwight and Steven Hammond were ultimately convicted of setting a fire in 2001 that consumed 139 acres of federal property, while the younger rancher was also found guilty of lighting a “back burn” that spread onto an acre of public land in 2006.
A federal judge originally imposed prison terms of three months for Dwight Hammond and a year for Steven Hammond after finding the five-year mandatory terms required under federal law “really would shock the conscience.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision and the ranchers were required to serve the full five years behind bars.
Their return to prison in early 2016 sparked protests that led to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns.
While many of the Hammonds’ supporters didn’t approve of the takeover, they saw the Obama administration’s pursuit of longer prison sentences as vindictive. That sentiment was echoed in Trump’s pardon announcement, which called the appeal “overzealous.”
“I think the president recognized they’re good and decent men and got a raw deal on the sentencing,” said Nathan Jackson, a rancher and president of OCA. “The wheels of justice turn slowly but they do turn. ... These guys were railroaded and now they’re getting out, and that is what is right and just.”
The Hammonds were charged under a federal anti-terrorism statute, which caused many in agriculture to question the judgment of the prosecutors.
“Farm Bureau was shocked by the minimum five-year sentence the Hammonds faced,” said American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall. “Even worse was the Justice Department’s decision to use anti-terrorism laws to prosecute them. We could not be happier this ugly chapter in governmental overreach has come to an end.”
For some critics of the Obama administration, the Hammond case served as an example of a federal persecution of ranchers to bolster environmental aims.
The pardons will hopefully make it clear that federal managers are not free to put ranchers out of business and take their land, said Dave Duquette, a Hermiston resident and national strategic planner for Protect the Harvest, an agricultural and hunting nonprofit.
“It will send a message to the lower-level bureaucrats,” he said. “If it doesn’t, then they’re not paying attention because the Trump administration is not going to take that kind of stuff.”
The federal government’s approach to the Hammonds reflects “prosecutorial misconduct” that’s evident in other cases, said Ramona Morrison, daughter of deceased Nevada rancher and “Sagebrush Rebellion” icon Wayne Hage.
“It’s a little spooky that’s how far they will go,” she said. “It’s the same tactic they’ve used across the West.”
Morrison is less optimistic about the Hammond pardons changing how federal business is conducted on the ground, however.
“The deep state is alive and well in these agencies,” she said.
The notion that Obama declared a “war on ranching” is contradicted by the amount of grazing on public land during his term, which remained stable, said Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities.
The Hammonds, meanwhile, were convicted of a “very serious crime” that shouldn’t be brushed aside, he said.
The nonprofit would not have objected to Trump simply commuting the Hammonds’ sentences and setting them free, Weiss said.
A full pardon grants broader absolution, which undercuts the dangerousness of setting fires and indicates that public land can be burned without consequence, Weiss said.
Militants who occupied the Malheur National Refuge and previously confronted federal agents at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada will also see the Trump administration as sympathetic to their aims, he said.
“We think this sends a very dangerous message that will put America’s park rangers, law enforcement officers and public land managers at risk,” he said.