On Tuesday morning, President Trump announced his latest pardon — this time of two rural Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond. The Hammonds’ case is hardly out-of-nowhere, centering on the debate over how federal lands are used and managed in the Western United States — something that has been at the core of Trump administration policies and, particularly, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure. The Hammonds have become something of a cause celebre for right-wing politicians, anti-government militias, “Constitutional” sheriffs and notorious “activists,” like the Bundy family.
The father and son were convicted in 2012 of arson of federal land. They claimed the fires they lit were backburns that simply got out of hand; government attorneys said they were intentionally lit — one, in particular, to cover an illegal deer hunt. Their convictions, under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, came with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years behind bars. By pardoning the Hammonds, Trump isn’t just letting them out of jail. He’s saying that the fires they lit — two of many the Hammonds were suspected of igniting — were perfectly acceptable.
As we found when we started reporting on the Hammonds in 2016 for our podcast “Bundyville,” the father-and-son ranchers’ case was touted by Ammon Bundy as one of the reasons for the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their case — and the recent pardon — therefore speaks to the ways the Trump administration is emboldening the far right “patriot” movement more generally.
By the time Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, marched into Burns, Ore., and declared they were taking up the Hammond case, they were about 20 years late to the cause. The Hammonds had already been fighting for the feds to get out of the land management game since the 1980s. In fact, the elder Hammond, Dwight, began trading barbs with U.S. Fish & Wildlife employees in the late 1980s over a fence that was erected between the refuge and his property. Barbs turned to death threats, threats led to an arrest.
In 1994, Chuck Cushman and the American Land Rights Movement took up the Hammonds’ cause. One photocopied flier for a rally in August of that year reads: “This man dared to stand up to the Federal Government, and for that they would punish him,” The flier goes on: “We urge everyone who cherishes their freedom, or who deals with federal government bureaucracy, to attend this rally.”
While the Bundys may have been relative latecomers to the Hammond story, their rhetoric reflects the larger state of the movement. During the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, Ammon Bundy held daily news conferences, and often said the occupiers wanted to see federal lands transferred back to states in an effort toward “getting the ranchers back to ranching, the miners back to mining, putting the loggers back to logging.”
Those words aren’t original to the Bundys, but are symptomatic of an attitude that some ranchers adopted in the late 1970s. After the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act put agencies like the Bureau of Land Management in charge of weighing multiple uses on Western lands, some ranchers felt they were being edged off the land. Suddenly, they had to share the wide-open spaces in the West with campers and other recreational users of public lands
But since President Trump took office, Interior Department agencies in charge of weighing multiple uses have had one arm tied behind their backs. Meanwhile, the land transfer movement — which believes handing public lands back to states would give more weight to ranchers — has found a champion in Zinke. The former Montana state senator has advocated for rolling back national monuments in Oregon and Utah, among other states, to make way for extractive industries … like mining, logging and, of course, ranching.
The Hammond case has also informed more locals in the West. There’s no doubt that the Bundy family brought attention to the Hammonds with the 2016 occupation that they might not have gotten otherwise. The widely broadcast spectacle of the armed take over also proved to be fertile ground for politicians to reach disaffected Americans.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), for example, is Oregon’s only Republican congressman, and he played a key role in getting the president to pardon the Hammonds. Though he has consistently said he disagrees with the actions the Bundys took during the refuge takeover, he has also said he shares their anger with the government for federal overreach. He called the pardon a “win for justice.”
Walden is hardly alone. Before the 2016 refuge occupation, Las Vegas council member Michele Fiore was best-known for her pistol-adorned Christmas cards and “Walk the Talk Second Amendment Calendar.” But during the 2016 occupation, Fiore served as a spokesman for the Bundy cause as a member of COWS — the Coalition of Western States — and brokered the end of the standoff alongside evangelist Franklin Graham. She has continued to advocate for federal transfer of public lands despite her hyperlocal job, even posing for photos with Zinke during a trip to Washington, D.C. Alongside her were Rep. Matt Shea, of Washington state, and Montana State Sen. (and Zinke fan), Jennifer Fielder.
Others have taken a similar approach. Ryan Bundy, for example, has used the fame gained from the armed occupation to launch his political career — running a quixotic campaign to be Nevada’s next governor. Even the president’s sometimes political adviser Roger Stone has spent time in the sprawling Nevada desert advocating for ranchers like the Bundys.
The Hammonds, for their own part, didn’t necessarily want any of their attention, though it likely led to the pardon. As we show in our podcast, the Hammonds told the Bundys and anti-government militias that they didn’t want their help — that they’d go report to jail, and serve out their time.
Nevertheless, members of “Operation Mutual Defense,” a group of militia leaders interested in aiding the Bundy family in the refuge takeover, spent weeks talking up the plight of the Hammonds to rally their troops. On phone calls tapped by the FBI, OMD members brainstormed ideas to take over the courthouse in Burns, Ore. or, even, breaking the Hammonds from custody. One spoke of pressuring the Hammonds to accept the aid of the Bundys and the militias: “whether [they] want it or not.”
Ultimately, that commitment may have been a smart play, since the pardon effectively legitimizes the Bundys’ actions. The Hammonds were released from prison by Tuesday afternoon, and Ryan Bundy was already touting the pardon as a victory, telling Oregon Public Broadcasting: “Today shows we were right, we went there for a good reason, and our efforts have finally come to fruition.”
In court, the Bundys said their actions in Nevada and Oregon were protests — not standoffs — grounded in their (disproved) belief that the Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to own land. To legal scholars, the Bundys’ legal arguments have never made sense. In “Bundyville,” University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law professor John Ruple told us the Bundy’s interpretation of the Constitution is “simply wrong” and have “been refuted over and over and over again.”
“There’s a tendency to look at the text of the Constitution, to cherry-pick certain provisions while ignoring others,” Ruple says. “And to completely ignore 200-plus years of jurisprudence where the Supreme Court and other courts have gone to great lengths to interpret what those provisions of the Constitution mean.”
Lots of locals in Burns do want to see the Hammonds come home. But most of those same people see the ranchers’ lawlessness as completely separate from the Bundy family’s. But don’t tell the Bundys that: by Tuesday, it was already clear that the Bundys see the Hammond pardon as justifying their actions, and they have no plans of stopping now that they have a trail of victories — acquittals in Oregon, a mistrial in Nevada, and now the Hammonds’ pardon — behind them.