Who Makes The Next Move At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge?

Remember when the Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for several years in the late 1960s? How about the Ruby Ridge debacle or even the Waco imbroglio? There are a number of chapters in our country’s recent history when groups have become fed up with Uncle Sam’s bullying behavior and penchant for over-regulation and made a statement by resisting the government’s authority.

History is repeating itself at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the remote and frigid southeastern corner of Oregon. Over the weekend, a several-hundred-person procession marched through Burns, Oregon and stopped at Dwight Hammond’s doorstep. This was a massive show of support for Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, as they prepared to report to the BOP yesterday.

The Hammonds are at the eye of this storm after being convicted for setting fires to federal lands in 2001 and 2006. In the 2001 incident, the Hammonds, who leased grazing rights to the land for their cattle, said they had started the fires on their own land to prevent the spread of an invasive species of plant, and that the fire inadvertently burned onto public land. In contrast, prosecutors said the fire consumed 139 acres of public land and was set to hide evidence after the men were part of a hunting party that illegally killed several deer on 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 federal property. Prosecutors said that fire then spread onto the federal land.

Surprisingly, the Hammonds were both charged with and convicted of violating a federal terrorism statute that mandates a minimum of 5 years in the pokey for anyone convicted of arson on federal property. When the case was initially called for sentencing, the district court sentenced the Hammonds to serve less than five years and they served their sentences. However, the Ninth Circus remanded the case for resentencing reminding the district court that the conviction carried a 5 year mandatory sentence. The Hammonds were resentenced to serve the mandatory minimum sentence and they are now wards of the BOP.

The 5 year mandatory sentence outraged many fellow ranchers and constitutionalist groups in the northwest, who considered the case both an overreach of federal regulation and of the federal prosecutors. Equally infuriating, the Hammonds were deemed terrorists. Misguided for sure, but terrorists—REALLY?

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. After some fire and brimstone speeches at the Hammonds’ property over the weekend, a handful of militia members began occupying Malheur to show their support for the Hammonds and their disdain for the government.

Now, the ball is in the DOJ’s court—do they allow the rag tag group to occupy this godforsaken wildlife refuge in the brutal weather it experiences in the winter or do they assemble the troops and show them who’s boss. Time will only tell.