Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond are back in prison for starting fires on public lands in 2001 and 2006, but at least one of the family’s allies believes they won’t be serving their full five-year sentences.

Dave Duquette, of Hermiston, works with the national nonprofit Protect the Harvest and met at length with the Hammonds in Burns before Saturday’s rally broke off into an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Duquette defended the Hammonds and weighed in on the militia’s presence during a meeting of the Greater Hermiston Area Tea Party Monday evening at the Stafford Hansell Government Center. About 20 people attended the meeting and decried what they see as a gross injustice on the part of the federal government.

The group also heard from a retired U.S. district forester about the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, and group Chairman Rob Lovett said they intend to pursue coordination with the Forest Service — similar to movements in Grant and Baker counties.

At the heart of both issues is the perceived mismanagement of public land and domineering attitude of agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Lovett said citizens need to unite under a single voice to protect their rights.

“We want to prevail over the federal government, for freedom and for liberty,” Lovett said.

That unity seemed to splinter in Burns, where a march to support the Hammonds was overshadowed by armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Duquette said he has since swapped text messages with Ammon Bundy, who has acted as the group’s leader, and believes the group will eventually leave peacefully.

Bundy’s brother, Ryan Bundy, has told Oregon Public Broadcasting they will go home if the community wants them to go.

“My guess is this thing won’t last much longer,” Duquette said.

Duquette said the residents of Burns are divided on the 15-or-so armed protesters. If nothing else, he said the occupation has helped raise awareness of the Hammonds’ case.

“There’s nothing better than free press. And they got a lot of it,” Duquette said.

Duquette called the Hammonds’ sentencing “the most sickening case of government overreach I’ve seen.” The ranchers were convicted of arson after setting fires that burned onto federal land, burning 140 acres total.

A U.S. district judge initially refused to impose the mandatory five-year minimum sentence, arguing cruel and unusual punishment. However, that ruling was overturned on appeal and the Hammonds were resentenced in October.

The Hammonds turned themselves in on Monday, though Duquette believes they will be released early. He said nonprofit group Protect the Harvest will go to bat for the ranchers.

“It was an extreme injustice to send them away for five years,” Duquette said. “I think they were done wrong. Constitutionally, I don’t think it was legal what happened.”

In a separate presentation, the tea party heard from Dave Price, a retired district forester who spent 37 years with the Forest Service in Oregon, Washington and California. He spoke about the ongoing Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, which is due for a final environmental analysis in September.

Price was critical of the Forest Service for stacking restrictions that he said have dramatically narrowed the window for timber harvest and management. That’s led to a major backlog of fuels driving bigger, hotter wildfires in Eastern Oregon.

Lovett said the Forest Service has acted like a “quasi-dictatorship” at the expense of communities. He said the group intends to reach out to timber executives and county commissioners to come up with a local plan to invoke coordination with the feds.

Forest plans do not approve site-specific projects, but set goals and desired conditions for a period of 10-15 years. Price encouraged members to speak up now before it’s too late.

“If this plan goes the wrong way, you could lose any opportunity to (influence) this in the future,” he said. “It’s your land. And you have a big investment.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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