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Vol. 80/No. 3      January 25, 2016

(front page)

Oregon actions demand ‘Free
Hammonds,’ open land use

Some 300 ranchers and others marched in Burns, Oregon, Jan. 2 to protest the imposition of draconian additional five-year federal prison time on Dwight and Steven Hammond. The two area cattle ranchers have already served out their original, much shorter sentences for setting backfires on their property that burned small sections of adjacent government-controlled land. After the march, a small group of armed protesters occupied the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The main liberal media and much of the petty bourgeois left paint the protest, and anyone who supports its demands, as reactionary, racist or “domestic terrorists.” An editorial in the Dallas Morning News derided what it called “#YallQaeda knuckleheads.” David Atkins, a blogger for Washington Monthly, argued that while Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protesters “are met with batons and tear gas,” the cops are letting the Oregon occupiers off the hook, saying they should get the same treatment as Islamic State terrorists.

While most local residents say they would like the occupiers to leave, many ranchers and farmers in Oregon and around the country back the demand to free the Hammonds and oppose growing government regulations that burden ranchers and others trying to make a living off the land.

Federal authorities charged 73-year-old Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who have owned ranch land bordering the Malheur refuge since the 1960s, with conspiracy and arson for several controlled fires that inadvertently spread to public land. They set the fires both to protect their ranch from nearby wildfires and to control intrusive weeds, a common practice.

In 2012 Dwight Hammond was convicted on one count for a 2001 fire. His son was found guilty in that blaze and one in 2006, which burned one acre of public land while protecting their ranch’s winterfeed from a wildfire started by lightning.

The federal government’s charges against the Hammonds included a mandatory five-year prison sentence under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. After the convictions, trial Judge Michael Hogan refused to impose the mandatory terms, saying they would be “grossly disproportionate.” Citing the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, Hogan sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steven Hammond to one year in prison, which they served.

The government appealed, and the 9th Circuit Court ordered the district court to resentence them. The Hammonds reported to a prison in California Jan. 4 to begin serving the longer terms.

“This is a good example of why we need land reform in the U.S., especially for poor farmers,” Willie Head, an African-American farmer in Pavo, Georgia, involved in struggles to defend working farmers and their land, told the Militant. “What really bothers me is that the son and father were convicted of arson and given a sentence, and then the federal court of appeals judge decided it wasn’t enough and increased it. That’s a dangerous precedent.”

Following the Jan. 2 march, some people — news reports suggest perhaps a couple dozen — took over the unoccupied headquarters of the nearby Malheur wildlife refuge. The group is headed by Ammon Bundy, who owns a truck maintenance business in Tempe, Arizona. Calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, they demand the Hammonds’ release and an end to federal control of land in the West.

Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, is a large-scale ranch owner in Nevada. He had an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in 2014 over $1 million in unpaid federal grazing fees.

Protests over restrictions on land

Harney County has a population of about 7,000, spread out over 10,000 square miles. Timber mills and a mobile home manufacturing plant have closed since 1978, leaving farmers, ranchers and some agriculture-related and retail jobs. As in other rural areas throughout the West, disputes over grazing and other land use on government-owned land go back more than a century.

The first national reserve lands were set aside in the 1890s, provoking clashes with homesteaders, miners and small ranchers over access to timber, grazing and mining. The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act effectively ended homesteading, and set up a system of permits and payments for grazing on public land that especially favored larger landowners.

Since the 1970s, ever more government regulations, often in the name of environmental protection, have been imposed on federal land use, impacting family farmers and ranchers the hardest. Today the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies control 85 percent of the land in Nevada and over half in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Utah.

Hundreds of residents attended a community meeting in Burns Jan. 6. Many thanked those occupying the Malheur refuge for bringing national attention to the Hammonds’ case and to the issues around grazing rights. Most also said occupiers should leave, not wanting the situation to escalate into a deadly confrontation like the 1993 FBI assault on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, in which more than 80 people, including 17 children, were killed.

The FBI and other federal authorities have set up a command center in Burns, but so far have not attempted to dislodge the occupiers, based on policies adopted after confrontations like the one Waco. “They’re collecting intelligence, doing surveillance, have familiarized themselves with the layout of the refuge buildings, may be intercepting calls and contacting people who may have had a falling out with the occupiers,” the Oregonian reported Jan. 12, citing former federal agents.

The Hammonds say Bundy does not represent them, and they don’t support the occupation.

“The protesters have no claim to this land,” said Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, at a Jan. 6 press conference. “It belongs to the native people who continue to live here.” The Burns Paiute have their own disputes with the U.S. government, including increasingly bureaucratic obstacles about fishing and hunting on federal land. But, Rodrique said, the occupiers are endangering “the safety of our community and they need to leave.”

Bundy says he backs the Paiutes’ land claims.

Rancher Cory Shelman told a Jan. 11 community meeting in Burns that “local federal employees — who have reportedly been followed and felt rattled by the out-of-town visitors and anti-government rhetoric — have ‘a right to their jobs’ and should be treated with respect,” the Oregonian said. “But he also said he doesn’t think it’s constructive to label Bundy a ‘thug’ and believes Bundy has committed a public service by raising the issue of federal land management.”
Related articles:
Free Dwight and Steven Hammond!
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