Thursday, December 31, 2015
Oregon ranchers' fight with feds sparks militias' interest
Rancher Dwight Hammond Jr. paused while loading cattle one recent day to listen to the fund-raising 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. 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."