BURNS — Rancher Dwight Hammond Jr. paused while loading cattle one recent day to listen to the fundraising pitch.
Another rancher was selling raffle tickets, raising money for local scholarships while working cattle southeast of town.
Hammond drew out his wallet and pulled out the only currency he had – a $100 bill. He bought five tickets, never asking for change.
Hammond has reached for his wallet a lot in this country. He and his ranch family have supported virtually every charitable activity there is around Harney County in eastern Oregon. They buy youngsters’ animals at 4H sales. They host barbecues. They support the local senior center.
But now Hammond, 73, won’t be a fixture in the community much longer. He’s headed back to federal prison to serve nearly five years for arson. He will be joined by one of his sons, Steve, 46, who faces up to four years.
Their arrival in prison, scheduled for Monday, won’t quiet the controversy that has swirled around their case for years.
The men were convicted of arson but under a provision of an expansive federal law punishing terrorism. They each served prison terms that the sentencing judge thought just, only to be told by appellate judges they had to go back to serve longer.
Their case heightened debate about how the federal government runs its lands. The United States of America holds deed to three-fourths of Harney County. Ranching done for a century and more is under pressure from environmentalists, recreationalists and hunters.
Across the country, there is deepened concern about how authorities apply justice. And the issue of how to use federal land affects anyone who has been to a national forest or a federal wildlife refuge.
The plight of the Hammonds has become a rallying call for one militia and patriot group after another. Men who see tyranny in federal acts are standing for the two men, though the Hammonds have said through their lawyers they want no part of the militancy.
The Hammonds, who built a solid reputation and a prosperous ranching outfit in Oregon’s most remote corner over the past 50 years, are keeping quiet. They declined an interview request and didn’t answer written questions about their ranching, their crimes and their new protectors.
Instead, just before Christmas, they issued a family statement:
“Our family appreciates the support of our local community. We have lived here, raised our families here, invested our time here, and grown our ranching business here because of the shared values of community, land stewardship, and family. We hope to see those values continue for many generations to come.”
Dwight Hammond was about 22 when he moved to the Diamond Valley, a remote range where cattle baron Pete French once held sway. Hammond and his wife, Susan, started Hammond Ranches Inc., beginning with about 7,000 acres.
Today, Hammond Ranches owns about 12,000 acres in the Diamond-Frenchglen area. They use this ground to run cattle during the winter. Until two years ago, they used 26,420 acres of land belonging to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for summer grazing.
Over the years, Hammond built a side business trucking livestock while his youngest son, Steve, helped run the ranch.
Together, they and their wives became civic anchors, according to letters later submitted to federal court. They served on school boards and nonprofit boards. They were active in industry groups, with Steve Hammond once serving as president of the Harney County Farm Bureau.
The elements that ultimately led the Hammond men to prison were fire and federal land.
In 1999, Dwight Hammond got a stern letter from the local manager for the federal land bureau saying that Steve Hammond had set a fire that spread to bureau ground. The letter said Steve told officials in a subsequent meeting that he “did not believe there was any way to control fire behavior or where it would burn, and that he did not take any action to prevent the fire from burning.”
The federal manager left off by warning the family not to let it happen again.
But lighting public rangeland on fire is exactly what federal prosecutors say the Hammonds proceeded to do.
The first fire came in 2001: a simple prescribed burn, intended to take out invasive juniper, by Steve and Dwight Hammond’s account.
But federal prosecutors said the men’s real motive for starting the blaze, which consumed 139 acres and forestalled grazing for two seasons, was to cover up evidence of an illegal slaughter of deer. The government presented evidence that Steven Hammond called an emergency dispatcher to ask if it was OK to burn — roughly two hours after they already lit the fire. His attorney said in court that Hammond called the land bureau beforehand.
The government acknowledged that the next fire, in 2006, was intended as a defensive move. Steve Hammond set backfires to keep a lightning-caused fire from burning onto the Hammonds’ ranch and hitting their winter feed.
But the government said Steve Hammond lit up on the flanks of a butte, despite a countywide burn ban and the knowledge that young part-time firefighters were camped up higher. Their crew boss spotted the fires, which were set at night, and moved the crew.
How prosecutors pursued the ensuing criminal case over the two fires is what bothers Hammond supporters.
When the men were indicted in 2010 on federal arson charges, they faced sentencing under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Some Hammond backers and a host of recent social media posts translated that to mean the Hammonds were treated as terrorists.
“When you start bringing in the terrorism act for God-fearing livestock producers in eastern Oregon, something is wrong,” said Barry Bushue, a Multnomah County berry farmer and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Federal prosecutors say they did no such thing.
“At no time have I ever called these two men terrorists. Never,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni Jr., the federal prosecutor, said in court last October. “They committed arson.”
But the five-year sentence mandated by terrorism law also concerned people. Among the critics: the federal judge who presided over the Hammonds’ trial in Pendleton.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said at the men’s original sentencing in 2012 that such a term would be unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment.
“It would be a sentence which would shock the conscience,” Hogan said before sentencing Dwight to three months and Steve to one year.
The men served their time and went home to raise cattle. But their case, it turned out, was far from settled.
Amanda Marshall, then U.S. attorney for Oregon, said she recommended the government challenge Hogan’s sentence as illegal.
“If the government stands by and doesn’t pursue the statutorily mandated sentence in this case, what kind of precedent does that set?” Marshall asked. Hogan, she said, imposed “an unlawful sentence.”
Papagni, the federal prosecutor, said in court last fall that “the government did what we are supposed to do when someone doesn’t follow the law, be it a judge or be it two ranchers in eastern Oregon.”
The solicitor general at the U.S. Justice Department authorized a rare appeal of an Oregon judge’s order.
The appeals court sided with the prosecution, and the Hammonds trooped to federal court last October to face a second sentencing.
Family and supporters filled the Eugene courtroom and U.S. Chief District Judge Ann Aiken gave the two convicted ranchers a chance to speak.
“I have nothing to say,” Steve Hammond said.
“I have got nothing to say,” Dwight Hammond said.
“Really?” the judge asked. “That’s so unusual.”
She sentenced them to prison to finish five-year terms but left them free until after the holidays.
The Hammonds’ pending return trip to prison deeply troubles ranchers and others.
“There’s nobody in history who has gone to federal prison for burning a few acres of public property,” said Melodi Molt, a Harney County rancher and former president of Oregon CattleWomen. “It’s not right.”
The Oregon Farm Bureau said the second prison term is “gross government overreach and the public should be outraged.”
And then there is what some locals see as a government land grab.
The Hammonds in late 2014 agreed to pay the federal government $400,000 to settle a lawsuit seeking to force them to pay more than $1 million in costs for fighting fires they set. The Hammonds paid $200,000 right away and paid the rest Thursday.
The settlement also required the Hammonds to give the land bureau first chance at buying a particular ranch parcel adjacent to public land if they intended to sell. For some, this was evidence that the government all along was after the Hammond ground to add to its Steens Mountain holdings.
“One thing that upsets cattle people is that provision,” said Bob Skinner, a Jordan Valley rancher representing the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. But federal attorneys said the land provision was inserted in case the Hammonds felt they had to sell ranchland to pay the settlement. The Hammonds apparently won’t face that prospect because they intend to pay the balance.
As the men pack for prison, the family faces challenges to keep the cattle business going.
The federal land bureau last year decided not to renew grazing permits because of the criminal convictions. A Boise lawyer appealing the decision said the loss will strain the ranch.
Molt said ranchers are ready to support the Hammond outfit.
“All they have to do is call on community members if they need help,” said Molt.
Reprinted with permission.