Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Eastern Oregon Militia Occupation: A Detailed History (Part 1)

2016 is off to an eventful start. Near Burns, Oregon (which happens to be the state that I live in), Ammon Bundy of the Bundy Militia has been "occupying" the federally owned Malheur National Wildlife Reserve since the beginning of January. This whole shitstorm started with the arrest of Steven Hammond for starting a fire on public property without a license. That incident happened on August 26, 2006, and was called the Lower Ridge Creek fire. According to this 2012 news article on the incident, Hammond and his father got in trouble as far back as 1999 for illegally starting fires to improve grazing conditions. They also set a fire in 2001 to scare away deer hunters. Because just having a talk with them would have been too difficult, I guess.

On August 26, 2006, Steven Hammond and his father set an illegal fire that threatened to overrun an BLM (Bureau of Land Management) brush engine and its crew. A firefighter named Lance Okeson confronted Hammond at the scene of the fire, according to US Attorney Frank Papagni Jr. The Hammonds were charged with nine counts involving conspiracy and setting illegal fires on federal lands. There's also a count of alleged witness tampering involving a confrontation between Steven Hammond and rangeland conservation manager Joe Glascock.

Looking into the history of Mr. Hammond, I discovered that he and his father actually got in trouble with the law even earlier than I originally thought. A news article from 1994 details a conflict between Dwight Hammond, Steven's father, and Steven himself against the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That particular controversy started when federal officials tried to build a fence around the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to keep the Hammond family's cattle from trespassing on the land. The Hammonds attempted to block them from building the fence and were arrested and charged with interfering in federal operations. 500 ranchers showed up to protest the arrest of the Hammonds and the Oregon Lands Coalition declared their arrest, "A Hostage Situtation." Bob Smith, a Republican politician representing Oregon's 2nd Congressional District at the time, wrote a letter to then US Interior Labor Secretary Bruce Babbitt, declaring his support of the Hammonds and that their arrests had "made his constituents lose faith in their government." This was the middle of an election season, so it was probably just political grandstanding, but it did have an effect. The charges against the Hammonds were reduced from a felonies with a maximum of 3 years in prison and a $250,000 fine to misdemeanors with a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. A hearing on the charges had been scheduled in September of that year, but it ended up getting postponed indefinitely.

That 1994 controversy stemmed from Dwight Hammond repeatedly violating the terms of a special permit that allowed him to move his cattle through the refuge at specific times, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This led to his right to graze cattle on the haven south of Berns being revoked by refuge manager Forrest Cameron in June of that year. Hammond also allegedly sent Cameron death threats. He also allegedly sent previous refuge managers death threats in 1986 and 1988. I can see him wanting to protect his cattle and his livelihood, but his behavior makes it hard for me to sympathize with him.

This 1994 controversy didn't gain much news traction outside of Oregon, probably because the National Media was obsessed with the OJ Simpson murder case at the time. In 1995, voters who supported the Hammonds attempted to recall two members of the Harney County Court for not intervening on the Hammonds' behalf, but the attempt failed. The controversy seemingly was over in 1997, when the charges against the Hammonds were dropped entirely.

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