The father and son had been sentenced last year for setting fires on federal land, the conclusion of two decades of clashes between the Hammond family and the federal government that have made the ranchers a cause celebre for some on the right.
For their supporters, the Hammonds represent the latest battle in a struggle as old as the American settlement of the northwest: pitting poor cattle farmers against the federal government and its land regulations in states such as Oregon, where the government owns more than half of the land.
“Most Americans, if they knew the story of the threats and the charges brought against these ranchers, they would say this isn’t right,” said Jeff Roberts, one of the organizers of Saturday’s rally. “We really wanted to show the family support and let them know that they’re not alone. That Americans don’t turn their backs on them.”
But there is a stark divide among the ranks over how to best remedy the plight of the cattle rancher. Some activists, such as Roberts, think the battle will be won through a deliberate public awareness campaign, rallies and town hall meetings.
Others, including some armed militias, have another tact in mind: armed resistance.
As Saturday’s rally concluded, a small subsection of attendees, led by Ammon Bundy, began launching into impromptu speeches and, to the horror of many of the rally’s primary organizers, declared that it was time for the group to take up arms.
“Those who want to go take a hard stand, get in your trucks and follow me!” Bundy declared to the group at the conclusion of the event, according to several people who were in attendance.
“We were just aghast,” Roberts said.
His father, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who in 2014 had an armed standoff with federal agents who were attempting to prevent him from illegally grazing his cattle on federal land, who is not himself inside the refuge, told a reporter in Oregon that “150 militia men” had occupied the federal land. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, the armed men remained at the refuge.
“There were absolutely not 150 of them,” Roberts said Sunday morning. “He had a small handful of supporters, maybe a dozen. I saw them as they pulled out in their trucks.”
The Bundy family makes up perhaps the best known of the current crop of anti-government activists, which believe that the federal government – through expanding environmental and land regulation – has unconstitutionally infringed on the rights of citizens and that armed confrontation is necessary to curb that overreach.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point that it is putting them literally into poverty,” Ammon Bundy, clad in a brown rancher hat and thick flannel coat, told reporters Sunday morning, his breath forming small puffs of cloud in front of him as it hit the cold Oregon air.
“The Hammonds are just one example, a symptom of a very huge egregious problem,” he said. “It’s happening all across the United States.”
The number of anti-government “patriot” and militia groups has skyrocketed since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. By the end of the 2014, the group had identified 202 such anti-government militia groups — reaching levels not seen since the 1990s.
And that momentum grew even further after the standoff at the Bundy Ranch in April 2014, during which Cliven Bundy and his family threatened to shoot any federal agent who attempted to remove his cattle from federal land in Nevada.
Bundy quickly became pseudo-celebrity among some conservatives — and appeared prominently on Fox News Channel — who later distanced themselves from him after he made a series of racist comments about blacks to reporters covering the standoff.
But even with most of his most powerful political allies abandoning him, Bundy won the battle. After a week-long standoff, the Bureau of Land Management stood down, allowing the rancher to continue to use the federal land without regulation.
“When the federal government was stopped from enforcing the law at gunpoint that energized this entire movement,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who said the number of self-described anti-government militia groups is believed to have grown by one-third in 2015. “When you have a big win like they did at the Bundy ranch, it emboldens people. . . . It is definitely a recipe for disaster.”
Since successfully running federal officers off his ranch, Bundy and his supporters have become a traveling troop — co-opting various incidents in which they think the federal government is over-regulating the every-man. In April, the Bundy family involved itself in the Sugar Pine Mine dispute — during which a local miner took up arms against federal agents who said he did not own the surface rights to the land he was mining. Other members of the Bundy militia went to the border, arguing that if the federal government would not prevent illegal immigration, they would do it themselves.
“They are being opportunist about any situation that is opposed to the federal government or involves federal land issues,” Beirich said. “This movement thinks it can continue to keep the federal government at bay.”
And then, according to his published accounts, Ammon Bundy got a call from the Hammonds.
After a two-week trial, Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted by jury. They were sentenced in October to five years in prison for committing arson on federal land in 2001 and 2006. The pair had been sentenced and served time previously, but on appeal a federal judge ruled that their initial sentences had been too short.
In the 2001 incident, the men, who had leased grazing rights to the land for their cattle, said they had started the fires on their own land to try to prevent the spread of an invasive species of plant, and that the fire had inadvertently burned onto public land. Prosecutors said the fire consumed 139 acres of public land, and was set in an attempt to hide evidence after the men were part of a hunting party that illegally killed several deer on the federal land.
In 2006, the Hammonds allegedly set a “back fire” meant to protect their land after a series of lightning storms had started a fire on the federal property. Prosecutors said that fire then spread onto the federal land.
“We all know the devastating effects that are caused by wildfires. Fires intentionally and illegally set on public lands, even those in a remote area, threaten property and residents and endanger firefighters called to battle the blaze” Acting U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said in a statement issued after the Hammonds were sentenced. “Congress sought to ensure that anyone who maliciously damages United States’ property by fire will serve at least 5 years in prison. These sentences are intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place fire fighters and others in jeopardy.”
The sentence outraged many fellow ranchers and constitutionalist groups in the northwest, who considered the case an overreach of federal regulation and of the federal prosecutors.
“We don’t agree with the sentencing, so we came out to stand in solidarity and support,” said Brandon Curtis, president of the Idaho chapter of Three Percent, a constitutionalist group that was heavily involved in organizing the rally for the Hammonds.
Most infuriating about the Hammond case, their supporters say, is that the two men were charged under a federal terrorism statute that requires a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of arson on federal property.
“I don’t think anybody would argue that arson took place . . . but to sentence this family as terrorists, we think that is absolutely egregious,” Roberts said. “These are just country folk, they’re not terrorists.”
Roberts, Curtis and others traveled to the Hammond home in recent weeks and began holding town hall meetings to try to build more local support for them — assuring residents that they were not there to “upend the town.”
Despite encountering a lot of local skepticism, the men eventually found some allies — who started an organization called Harney County Committee of Safety and participated in Saturday’s rally.
But at the same time, the Bundy family had begun speaking out on behalf of the Hammonds. In early November, Ammon Bundy began posting updates on the case to his Facebook pages and website.
“This last Wednesday I spent a good part of the day in the Hammond’s home. We spoke for hours. Several times, I found the Hammond’s in tears when they explained the injustices that has destroyed their lives,” Ammon Bundy wrote on Nov. 21. “They were hopeful that the American people were going to stand for them. And that, just maybe, they would be able to return to the life they once knew.”
But even as the Bundys took an increasingly public role in the rallying around the Hammonds, the men and their legal team sought to distance themselves from the Nevada ranchers.
In a letter sent Dec. 11 to the local sheriff, one of the Hammonds’ attorneys sought to distance his clients from the Bundys – who had begun reaching out to local officials to demand the Hammonds be protected from being taken into federal custody.
“I write to clarify that neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family,” attorney Alan Schroeder wrote. “Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond intend to voluntarily report to the designated facility on January 4, 2016 as required.”
With the turn of the new year approached, and it became increasingly clear that the sentence was not going to be overturned — all legal options long exhausted — the messages the Bundy family relayed to their supports became increasingly frantic.
“Our rights are being stripped from us. This county is suffering. Good men are going to prison so wicked men can gain power and control. The constitution is being grossly violated, and you want to have a little walk and present flowers.” Ammon Bundy declared in a Dec. 26 Facebook post. “We intend to stand against these violations and not allow them to become the normal. Our actions will be recorded in history, the truth always reveals itself.”
And while the Bundys brought new attention to the Hammonds and the growing support for them, the increasingly extreme rhetoric from the family and their supports rubbed some of the local ranchers the wrong way.
“The Bundy group seems to be rubbing quite a few people the wrong way,” Melodi Molp, a Harney County rancher who is a member of the Harney County Committee of Safety, told the East Oregonian newspaper. “Bundy’s direction would put more than half of the people in this county out of a job.”
She told the paper that she was not going to personally attended Saturday’s rally, out of fear that Bundy and his crowd would be too aggressive with their rhetoric and actions.
Rally organizers say Molp was right: The Bundys showed up with several supporters and, at the conclusion of the event, initiated plans for an armed standoff.
The Bundy occupation “is a useless action that will not accomplish anything,” B.J. Soper, another of the primary organizers of Saturday’s rally, wrote on Facebook.
“You mislead the people of this county, and took advantage of the trust that had been built,” Soper said in a second post, in which he tagged Ammon Bundy and one of his most prominent supporters. “You HIJACKED what turned out to be a great and peaceful rally as intended to PROVOKE an action that will fail.”
Added Curtis in an interview: “It absolutely distracted from that, it turned the entire community into confusion . . . we don’t support sieging a federal facility, that’s not something we condone and it absolutely set us back.”
Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said Sunday that authorities from “several organizations” are working to peacefully resolve the siege.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers,” Ward said in a statement. “When in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
Reached Sunday, a member of the Hammond legal team declined to comment, but said the men — despite the ongoing occupation of the wildlife reserve being conduct in their name — still plan to report to prison Monday.