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Hammonds, local supporters distance themselves from militia groups

Militia members rally support for Burns ranchers set to report to federal prison, but neither the ranchers or their local allies are embracing the effort.

By Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on December 31, 2015 12:38PM

Last changed on December 31, 2015 12:46PM

Steven Hammond

Steven Hammond

Dwight Hammond

Dwight Hammond

Two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires on federal lands say they will report to prison Jan. 4, though militia organizations with ties to Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy are rallying supporters to protect them.

Dwight Lincoln Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, were resentenced Oct. 7 to five years in prison for the fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property near Diamond, Ore.

Bundy has had ongoing disputes with the BLM in Nevada for more than 20 years.

In 2012, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Bundy, alleging that he allowed cattle to graze on BLM property, despite an earlier injunction barring him from the land.

When the BLM tried to remove Bundy’s cattle, armed militia members surrounded the ranch and began a tense standoff with federal agents.

Bundy’s son, Ammon, posted a Facebook video asking Bundy Ranch supporters to come Saturday to Burns, the county seat of Harney County, where the Hammonds live. Bundy said the Hammonds are being persecuted by a land-grabbing federal government and that their case was “in many ways more important than the Bundy Ranch.”

In an earlier video, Ammon Bundy said, “I feel justified in defending the Hammonds, even they don’t have the strength and courage right now to stand for themselves.”

The Hammonds’ attorney, Alan Schroeder, said Wednesday that the Hammonds appreciate the support they’ve received from groups and individuals, but reaffirmed that militia members do not speak for them and that they intend to serve their time.

Montana resident Ryan Payne, an associate of Bundy’s and who participated in the standoff with federal officials at the Bundy Ranch, said Wednesday he hoped the Hammonds will reconsider and accept “protection.”

“They’re not in prison yet,” Payne said.

Payne said he expected “a lot” protesters Saturday. Organizers have asked protesters to bring pennies, nickels and dimes to toss at a county office building to symbolize how county authorities have “sold out” the Hammonds by not offering refuge.

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said he’s highly sympathetic to the Hammonds and believes their sentence was too severe. But militia groups’ anger at county officials over a federal prosecution is misplaced.

“It doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know why we’re suddenly the bad guys,” he said.

He said militia members have come into the county, openly carrying firearms and creating an intimidating atmosphere.

“I can’t get in and out of Safeway in less than an hour because people are stopping and asking me about it,” Grasty said. “I just can’t discern local support for what they’re doing, with very little exception.”

Payne and Ammon Bundy recently spoke at a meeting in Harney County attended by about 60 people, mostly local residents. From that meeting emerged a new group, the Harney County Committee of Safety, with the stated mission of safeguarding individual liberties.

Committee member Melodi Molt, a Harney County rancher, said Bundy “kind of woke a bunch of us up.”

The committee, however, planned to meet Wednesday evening to discuss its relationship with outside militia members.

“The Bundy group seems to be rubbing quite a few people the wrong way,” she said.

Their tactics may be too aggressive for a county heavily dependent on government employment, Molt said. “Bundy’s direction would put more than half of the people in this county out of a job,” she said.

Molt said she planned to watch but not take part in Saturday’s rally. “I’m hesitant to participate. I’ve never been to one of their rallies. It might be a little more aggressive than I’d like to see,” she said.

Payne said that if the local committee asks outside groups to leave, “I think we’d have to have a conversation.”

Payne said the issue was important to the entire country, not just Harney County residents.

“If we allow this to happen then the federal government will be encouraged to label anyone a terrorist,” he said.

The Hammonds were convicted of arson in 2012 after a two-week jury trial. Both were found guilty of starting a 139-acre fire in 2001. According to the U.S. Justice Department, Steven Hammond said he started the fire on private land to burn invasive plants and it spread to public lands. Prosecutors said the fire was set to cover up deer poaching on BLM land. Dwight Hammond also was convicted of setting a backfire in 2006 that burned 1 acre of public land.

The Hammonds originally received much shorter sentences from a U.S. District Court judge, who said the mandatory minimum sentence of five years was far too long. The lenient sentences, however, were overturned by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to the Hammonds’ resentencing.

Harney County Farm Bureau President Rusty Inglis said he doubts outside militia groups will generate much local enthusiasm.

“We don’t support them, simple as that,” he said. “I hope they have their little rally and it stays peaceful and nobody gets hurt,” he said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau has denounced the Hammonds’ punishment, but its president, Barry Bushue, said Wednesday that armed militia members won’t help their cause.

Bushue, a longtime family friend, said he expects the Hammonds will want to return to ranching.

“They want to do it peacefully. They want to move forward, instead of clinging to the past,” he said. “From my perspective, that’s where the community can be most beneficial, instead of making it into a public spectacle.

“I fear it reflects badly on the ranching community and the local community, or at least has the potential to,” Bushe said. “We are incensed by the fact that (the Hammonds) have to go back to prison, but in the end, the rule of law has to be followed.”


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