PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A prominent ranching family whose legal case sparked an armed occupation of a wildlife preserve has lived for three generations in Oregon’s high desert, building a large cattle operation and stellar reputations for kindness and generosity.
The Hammonds are known for supporting charitable and civic causes in a remote region where residents rely on each other for survival and fellowship. They’ve also clashed repeatedly with the federal government over land management, water rights and other issues.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, have been embroiled for more than five years in a legal dispute over several fires they lit that damaged federal property. The two men were convicted of arson and this week returned to prison to serve out longer sentences, which stoked long-simmering hostility between ranchers and government officials over management of federal land for cattle grazing.
The armed anti-government group that has occupied a building at a national wildlife refuge near the Hammond ranch cited the Hammonds’ experience as one of several cases of government overreach. The men’s re-imprisonment also drew anger from other ranchers who admire the Hammonds and believe the sentences are too harsh.
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The Hammonds “are the nicest people that ever walked the foot of this earth,” said Merlin Rupp, 80, a longtime local resident. “They’d do anything for me at the drop of a hat, and they got a raw deal.”
Rupp was among those who spoke out Wednesday in support of the family at an emotional community meeting called to discuss the occupation of the nature preserve. The Hammonds have not sought publicity and have distanced themselves from the armed protest.
Letters written in 2012 to the judge presiding over the case show that the Hammonds have served on school and farm-related boards and donated money, cattle and labor to countless fundraisers and events. They also supported local businesses and helped the local 4-H club.
Father and son have also helped others in crisis. When a neighbor’s daughter was injured in a car wreck, the Hammonds hayed their fields. When a fire burned a nearby homestead, the Hammonds let the rancher’s cattle graze on their feed. And when another neighbor’s bulls were trapped on a rim by heavy snow, Dwight Hammond flew his airplane to drop bales of hay for them, according to the letters.
In Harney County, home to about 7,700 people and more than 104,000 cows, ranching has long been a way of life. But in recent decades, concerns over the environment brought changes in range-management rules, leading to conflicts.
Dwight Hammond and his own father bought the ranch at the foot of Steens Mountain just south of the town of Burns in 1964. The family owns nearly 13,000 acres of fields full of scrubby bushes, grasses and sagebrush. The purchase price included several federal grazing allotments — the rights to lease public land for grazing — common in the West, where the federal government owns nearly half the land.
As the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge grew to surround the Hammond ranch, the family had to stave off pressure from the federal government to sell the ranch, Dwight Hammond told The Associated Press last week. The rancher said officials mismanaged the rangeland, including failing to do controlled burns for invasive plants that snuff out grass growth.
Federal officials repeatedly accused the ranchers of breaking environmental laws and declining to follow rules. Over the years, officials refused to renew some of the family’s grazing allotments and increased fees on others. They also restricted access to water sources used by the Hammonds.
In 1994, after officials sought to fence off a water source on the refuge to keep out the Hammond cows, the ranchers destroyed the fence and obstructed federal workers from continuing construction, The Oregonian newspaper reported.
Father and son were arrested on felony charges of interfering with federal employees, court records show. But after area ranchers protested, their charges were reduced to misdemeanors and later dropped.
Earl Kisler, the special agent who arrested the two in 1994, told the newspaper the Hammonds and other ranchers made repeated threats — including death threats — against refuge managers.
In the arson case filed against the Hammonds in 2010, prosecutors said the ranchers stepped out of line on land that didn’t belong to them because they believed the government was too slow in controlling invasive species. Father and son were charged with starting at least eight fires during a period of more than 20 years, though a jury three years ago found them guilty of setting only two.
The Hammonds acknowledged lighting fires on their own property in 2001 to reduce the growth of invasive junipers and again in 2006 to protect their winter feed and property from wildfires. The fires spread onto federal land leased by the family and charred just under 140 acres.
Prosecutors said grazing leases did not give the Hammonds exclusive use of the land or permission to burn public property. They said the 2001 fire was used to cover up poaching of deer.
In 2012, a judge sided with the Hammonds. Though the arson convictions require a five-year minimum sentence, he said those sentences did not fit the crime. As a result, the elder Hammond spent three months in prison, the son a little over a year.
But the government appealed and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later ordered the Hammonds to be resentenced. The court ruled that the judge did not have the authority to be lenient. Earlier this year, another judge ordered father and son back to prison for five years each, minus the time already served.
To the Hammonds and their supporters, the case appeared to be a vendetta. The Oregon Farm Bureau has called the Hammonds’ plight “a gross injustice” that “has severely damaged the long-term trust and cooperation that ranchers, foresters, and recreationists have had” with the government.