Last Tuesday, between nominating Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and flying off to a NATO meeting, President Donald Trump found the time to pardon Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, the eastern Oregon ranchers who were convicted in 2012 of burning public lands.
The Hammonds, whose property is adjacent to the public lands, admitted they set the fire, but only to protect their property from wildfire and invasive plants, they said. The federal government argued that the Hammonds set the fire to conceal evidence of acts that included poaching deer.
A jury bought parts of the government’s argument, and a judge sentenced the Hammonds to mandatory minimum sentences – five years.
Meanwhile, Western land-rights activists bought the Hammonds’ claim that they were martyrs, persecuted for their opposition to the federal government and its sprawling control of land in the West.
Later, another judge ruled the 5-year sentences were excessive, saying the father should have served three months and the son one year.
There it should have rested, if you ask us, with the pair punished, then freed – but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the second sentence and resentenced the Hammonds to five years apiece.
It was when the Hammonds were ordered to return to confinement that their supporters and others took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in 2016.
The Hammonds’ longtime attorney, Larry Matasar, and their congressman, Republican Greg Walden, petitioned to get their sentences commuted but made no headway with the Obama administration.
With Trump, it was a different story. By pardoning the father and son rather than simply showing clemency, the Trump administration seems to be sending a message that private landowners know better than federal employees when it comes to managing public lands. And that’s like dropping a lit match in a drought-stricken forest.
There has been friction along the lengthy borders of public lands in the West for several generations. We shouldn’t be surprised when it periodically erupts into fire.
What’s needed is greater understanding on both sides, and sympathy. It didn’t help when the Obama administration was perceived to be sympathetic to the government alone. It will help even less now that the Trump administration, in this unasked-for gesture, is siding with the ranchers against its own Interior Department.
Anyone in our part of Colorado doesn’t need to be told that there should be serious consequences for wantonly setting public lands ablaze.
Commuting the Hammonds’ sentences could have reinforced that. Pardoning them makes a joke of it.
Ranchers like the Hammonds have long decried what they say is the federal government’s bullying where private and public property meet. They have a case.
But in pardoning the Hammonds, what the Trump administration is saying is that the government is switching sides, not tactics. Now, it’s going to bully the public instead.