The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 80/No. 8      February 29, 2016

(front page)

Fight gov’t frame-up of Oregon ranchers

The day after Oregon State Police and the FBI ambushed and gunned down Robert “LaVoy” Finicum — a leader of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge protesting the imprisonment of cattle ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond and land-use issues in the West — Ruth Danielsen took a snowcat into town for repairs. “We had to go through two roadblocks,” she said by phone from Harney County Feb. 15. “They stopped us both times. Made us put our hands on our heads. Thirty or 40 federal agents, dressed to the nines, snipers.”

“I had on a vest and they told me to unzip it,” she said. “When I saw the video of the shooting [of Finicum], I kept thinking, if there had been a plane overhead filming me, they could’ve said it looked like I was reaching for a gun.”

She was referring to the FBI video of the Jan. 26 killing of Finicum and the FBI’s claim that he was shot because he was reaching for a gun.

Danielsen is a neighbor of the Hammonds and is involved in the fight to win their freedom and to regain their families’ grazing rights on federal land, which were vindictively revoked after their frame-up conviction for two controlled fires.

The tension between the Hammonds — and other ranchers — and government agents goes back decades.

In the 1970s nearly all the ranches in that area were bought up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the Malheur refuge. But the Hammonds, who had permits to graze their herd on federal land since they bought their ranch in 1964, refused to sell.

In August 1994 Dwight Hammond was arrested and charged with interfering with federal officers after he allegedly tried to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from fencing off a watering hole his cattle had used for 30 years.

The Oregonian reported that “more than 450 ranchers, loggers and sawmill workers turned out” at a public meeting to support the Hammonds and demand the charges be dropped.

In the latest attack, Dwight and Steven Hammond were sentenced to prison twice on the same arson charge, the second time with an extended sentence under federal mandatory-minimum terms required by the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

“Setting controlled fires is a common practice here,” Danielsen said. Not only ranchers, but the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies often set fires to get rid of invasive plants or to prevent the spread of wildfires caused by lightning.

“This is the first time anyone has been charged for this under the Antiterrorism law,” Danielsen notes. “In other cases if there’s any charges at all it’s usually just probation and a fine.”

The frame-up of the Hammonds takes place in the context of a decades-long shift in U.S. policy, marked by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Forest Management Act, passed under the banner of protecting the environment.

Increases in grazing fees; restrictions on grazing and planting hay; bans on harvesting fallen trees — a big issue because it increases the fuel load for fires; and pressure to sell ranch land became common in government regulators’ efforts to cobble together wildlife refuges and to save “endangered species” at the expense of local ranchers.

With some 50 percent of all land in the western United States owned by the federal government these are life-and-death questions for ranchers.

“It’s the smaller ranchers who get hurt the most,” Merlin Rupp, 80, who calls himself a retired buckaroo, said by phone from Burns, Oregon. “It’s criminal what they did to the Hammonds.”

“If you’ve got a ranch you’re not going to destroy the land, you want to make it better,” Rupp said, referring to claims that cattle grazing destroys the land.

“I worked in logging when I was younger,” Larry Lent, a retired ranch hand and meatpacker, told the Militant from John Day, Oregon. “Back then the log crews all stopped what they did and put out fires. Now if there’s a lightning strike and you put it out without their permission you can get fined or jailed.”

Many ranchers say that government red tape and rules affect both large capitalist ranches and small family run ones. “But if it was Ted Turner who did a back burn, do you think he’d be in jail like the Hammonds?” said Lent. “Hell no!”

Fight to free the Hammonds

Danielsen is working with the Hammond family to ask President Barack Obama to commute their sentence. She encourages people to send letters to Obama asking they be freed.

Letters can be sent to the Hammonds in prison at: FCI Terminal Island, 1299 Seaside Ave, San Pedro, CA 90731. Dwight Hammond #59886-065 and Steven Hammond #60061-065.

While support for the Hammonds is widespread in the region, the wisdom of the occupation of the wildlife refuge is still hotly debated.

Federal prosecutors have charged 25 people with conspiracy to “impede officers of the United States” for their role in the refuge occupation, including leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The FBI arrested their father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, when he flew to Portland, Oregon, Feb. 10 to visit his sons in jail. He was charged with six felony counts stemming from a 2014 confrontation in Nevada with federal agents when they attempted to confiscate 1,000 of his cattle they said were illegally grazing on federal land.  
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