Steve Hammond (photo by Oregon Farm Bureau)
Feds set fire to cattle and homesteads; no accountability
Let us analyze the general climate of land use in the west. Western lands are lands with multiple property right use. The homesteading of the land was settled on what you could put into use and was defined into state law as the settlers pulled land out of the public domain and created states. In basic law they were creating property rights. Each area was settled based on customs distinct within those regions and were therefore mostly settled on water availability. The Hammonds own some of the most valuable water rights in the region, and they are one of the last ranches to exist on Steen Mountain. The Mahler Refuge came into existence long after the property rights and irrigation technics of that area were established. In fact the refuge would have arguably not existed without ranching because it was the irrigation and spread of water that created the attractive environment for the waterfowl to call home.
Enter the government agencies. Land use agencies were created after the establishment of States, their respective State Law, and were designed to create a certain reserve or withdrawal from the public domain. But within each reserve or withdrawal was a recognition of prior rights. The ownership of the land was still in the hands of private individuals and the land agencies had no purpose other than to be useful in a cooperative way with local industry.
Times have changed the perceived and real power of the Federal Government.
Each year as Americans make less money and the Federal Government takes more money, the land agencies such as The Fish and Wildlife Service or The Bureau of Land Management have had enormous resources to pour into their anti-private property policies. The other tool these land agencies have had is the blanket credibility they carry back to Washington DC and their ability to sway political opinion by making allegations of environmental abuse. From the creation of the different land agencies forward, the political will to ignore the preexisting property rights in favor of increased federal political power was easily accomplished by alienating the rancher or logger from public and political sympathy using the call of alleged environmental abuse.
This was devastating to the communities because the call could be made without any real evidence. A federal employee is not legally accountable for anything other than not following policy handbook procedure, in fact they have immunity from prosecution in the execution of their duty. They also have no legal obligation to be scientific or truthful in their charges, and it works because no one will come to the aid of an alleged environmental rapist. In all the years of allegations not one federal employee has been charged with libel or filing a false report despite the hundreds of ranchers that successfully defended their land with expensive range analysis.
The ranchers in the Burns, Oregon and Mahler Wildlife refuge can point to the massive improvements to the land irrigation and grazing they did for the dry high desert. They can demonstrate that because proper stewardship always improves the long term health of cattle and the land; the ranching business model is what brings increased wildlife and health to the land. Cattle grazing in particular is a powerful way to restrain the hazard caused by dry grass build up that fuels fires.
In contrast, these land agencies as they successfully cut back grazing and logging have created a climate low in numbers of wildlife, and loaded with dry grass and diseased timber. The BLM and Forest Service prescribed controlled burns ultimately have become about burning the evidence. Not to mention Fire-Fighting in the west is now “big business” with lots of eager employees both private and public that help fuel fires along for the increased income.
The Hammonds have been on the front end of all of these issues.
When the Fish and Wildlife Service diverted water to create a wetland that forced out the lower ranchers, the Hammonds legally reinforced their claim they had to those water rights. When there was an attempt to withdraw Steen Mountains as a “Monument”, the Hammonds refused to sell. When the federal land agencies in collusion with the environmentalists attacked ranching for destroying the health of the land, the Hammonds built a file comparing wildlife numbers on livestock land verses the areas actively managed by the bureaucrats. Even more threatening was the success for legally defending their water rights in court when the agencies attempted to fence off access to a vital spring. In a county full of people very close to being regulated out of business, a property rights win against the aggressive tactics of the federal agencies indeed does become a threat.
What transpired next was the BLM making a case to put away the Hammonds for good. The many years of regulatory cut backs in grazing and then subsequent years of building excessive dry fuel ready to catch fire became a perfect storm. In a video from 2015, there is an example of ranchers in the surrounding area who watch as their cattle and homesteads are burned out. (see video link at end of article) Fire is nothing to mess with in the high winds that constantly blow across the desert. Like in 2006, the ranchers had submitted to cutbacks and followed BLM management plans. They were now in danger of being burned out of business. The Hammonds took action. During a major wildfire, they started a controlled back fire, a common and legal practice used in ranching to save the major part of their feed and put the fire out. It worked. By this time their file with the BLM was thick.
Bureaucrat after bureaucrat had made claim that the Hammonds were dangerous, threatened violence, and were aggressively hostile. Since again, all these federal employees have immunity from making false allegations. This file is very suspect. But the allegations were enough to an uninformed jury and were entered into evidence by a US Attorney in a Federal District Court, away from neighbors and friends who could testify to their falseness.
The BLM had the Hammonds arrested and charged with 18 counts of arson. They used every instance they could find of the Hammonds using controlled burns to help maintain the land, a common practice among ranching for centuries and accepted, to characterize them as dangerous arsonists. The allegations were filled with criminal intent. They were enough to create the appearance that it was not common practice to start back fires on private land. In fact, it is not even illegal if the fires get away from you. In these same years the BLM and Forest Service had burned thousands of acres, the Hammonds, 140. This is the desert, not suburbia; this is ranching, where the rancher is financially motivated to protect the land he uses, pays his taxes on, and makes his living on.
What is worse is how they were charged. It is troubling that a US Attorney out of the Department of Justice felt that prosecuting them on a Domestic Terrorism Law was appropriate. It is troubling that the judge in the case retired the day after Steve and Dwight were plead down to only two counts. It is troubling that despite that same judge being so moved to reduce the mandatory 5 year minimum on the grounds that the 8th Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment, that a vindictive bureaucrat could find another US Attorney to appeal to another judge and send them back to prison. It is troubling that they were due to pay $400,000 in fines by the end of 2016 and that part of their deal, if that payment isn’t made, will involve giving the government first right of refusal if they ever have to sell the ranch.
Of course the history comes down to who is the best liar. Because the file is so muddy now, how do the Hammonds recover? Even if they could sue for redress, one squawk in the public arena that they were violent abusers of the land, and no one will touch their defense. Their livelihood is now ruined. Despite their denial to sell out in the face of the Governments intent to steal, they have just about lost everything.