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The real story behind Trump’s pardon of Oregon ranchers

The president is fanning a culture-war fire to help cover up his campaign to hand wilderness to mining companies.

A sign posted by Burns, OR, locals asking anti-government extremists to leave the town during a January 2016 standoff. The Bundys were unwelcome gadflies during local frustration over the harsh prison sentences imposed on a pair of local ranchers.  CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A sign posted by Burns, OR, locals asking anti-government extremists to leave the town during a January 2016 standoff. The Bundys were unwelcome gadflies during local frustration over the harsh prison sentences imposed on a pair of local ranchers. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Trump pardoned two Oregon ranchers Tuesday, firing a new salvo in a complicated culture war previously marked by air-mailed sex toys, nuanced disputes over the management of public lands, and a police shootout that killed a would-be leader of a modern crackpot revolution.

Until Tuesday’s announcement, Dwight and Steven Hammond had been serving out five-year terms in federal prison. Those sentences had been widely condemned as overly harsh for the underlying conduct – a series of intentional fires lit by the Hammonds on either side of the line between their Oregon property and lands belonging to the American people.

But the details of Trump’s move indicate he is less interested in reversing an unjust sentence than he is in giving a thinly-veiled “attaboy” to a small group of heavily armed chaos agents who seek to undermine the federal government’s proper role in managing public lands all across the western U.S.

In late 2015, one loosely organized cluster of these same chaos agents trucked into Burns, Oregon without invitation. There, after briefly joining a locally-organized protest march against the harsh sentences issued to the Hammonds, Ammon Bundy — the son of rancher Cliven Bundy — asked the crowd to join his interloper bloc of so-called “sovereign citizens” in taking over federal buildings on the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The locals weren’t interested, but Bundy and his cadre drove onto the refuge and occupied the vacant buildings anyway, drawing federal officials into another prolonged standoff just a few years after Cliven had called up a militia to menace federal officers in Nevada in similar circumstances.

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The Hammonds are not the Bundys. The ranching communities who found the Hammonds’ cause sympathetic did not generally hold Bundy’s bizarro-world revolution in the same esteem. Yet the response that Bundy was able to provoke – both from the armed officials who took his bait, and from reactionary citizens who took to mailing dildos to the occupiers during the standoff — was so myopic toward the divides within the ranching community that it gave new credence to the arguments put forth by the little-loved radical faction of that community.

That’s the landscape on which Trump’s Tuesday move plays. Though the Hammonds are technically the subject of his decree, his intended audience is the Bundys. Since prominent liberals took the bait in Malheur, and allowed the Hammonds’ real beef to be subsumed into a shaggier, cheaper culture war between the Bundys and the feds, Trump is positioned to give his base another pep rally-sized dose of own-the-libs pugnacity – one big enough to distract from the president’s own efforts to sell off protected wilderness to destructive mining and gas profiteers.

The Obama administration’s public lands officials spent much time and energy defraying those tensions, instituting a newly inclusive and locally-rooted process for generating land management policies that better reflect input from the people who live and work on and near taxpayer-owned wilderness. Though bureaucratic details like public comment periods and open meetings rules may seem entirely divorced from a high-desert arson-and-gunplay story, the two are actually braided together tightly.

Trump has aggressively undermined the Obama land management reforms, as ThinkProgress reported a month after his inauguration. From Trump’s vantage point, a healthier relationship between city-slickers and ranchers is a problem not a solution. Their unity would make life harder for their common enemies in the destructive, polluting industries that want the minerals hiding under public lands – industries Trump is eager to serve. Tuesday’s pardon for the Hammonds is part of that same campaign to keep those who rely on sustainable land practices at each other’s necks instead of uniting against big business.

Fire on Krumbo Butte

If the goal was to correct the sentencing injustice, Trump could have simply commuted the sentences and ordered the Hammonds released. Instead, he issued a full pardon – which, legally speaking, implies that the Hammonds’ underlying conduct wasn’t actually criminal at all.

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That’s wrong. The fires the Hammonds lit in 2006 were plainly illegal. (Earlier, larger blazes in 1999 and 2001 likely were, too, but the 2006 episode is the wellspring of this entire saga).

A pardon undermines the rule of law on the range – already a dicey, fraught thing even prior to Trump’s election.

A commutation, by contrast, would have invited new reflection on why the Hammonds decided to light the woods up when they knew it was illegal. The answers to that question spotlight the tension between what’s legal and what’s justifiable, and would re-inject some humanity into the too-simple story most Americans have been told about the Bundys, the Hammonds, the Malheur standoff, and the police killing of Bundy ally Lavoy Finicum.

The story of the 2006 fires in particular is more complicated than either the Hammonds’ supporters or their critics have generally been willing to acknowledge. After a wildfire had begun on public lands near the spot where the Hammonds grew feed for their cattle, a group of wilderness firefighters dug in to overnight on a high point overlooking the fire. Suddenly, multiple smaller burns appeared downhill from them – one shift in wind currents away from creating a horrifically dangerous plight for the encamped fire crew.

Brett Dunten, one of the firefighters on the hill that night, correctly assessed the fires had been intentionally set. They were too linear to have been natural – calm conditions made it unlikely that embers from the wildfire would have jumped to their location in the first place, but if they had the resulting smaller burns would not have been so tidily arrayed. Steven Hammond had set the fires as part of what ranchers call a “backburn,” in which humans destroy a wildfire’s potential fuel sources to keep it from being able to move in a particular direction.

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Hammond’s backburn in 2006 was a criminal act. There was a burn ban in effect for the area at the time, and the younger Hammond’s decision to defy it had put Dunten and his fellow firefighters in serious danger. Dunten was able to move his crew out of harm’s way, and the fire did not ultimately migrate up the hill toward their campsite. But the next day, both Dwight and Steven were unrepentant. Confronted by members of the fire crew, Dwight “shrugged his shoulders” at the notion that the Hammonds’ renegade management of the fire area was “going to get someone killed.” The elder rancher suggested the firefighters come down to his house to talk through a plan rather than bringing in law enforcement. The firefighters decided he meant them harm — not an unreasonable conclusion, based on both his family’s conduct during that fire and his history of antagonisms with anyone acting on behalf of the feds.

This face-to-face dispute between these men, in a tense, unpredictable, and potentially life-threatening situation, is where the Hammonds’ legal saga tipped. Prosecutors eventually decided to go after the ranchers using provisions of a 1996 anti-terrorism law whose other provisions are widely reviled by progressive legal theorists — another inconvenient ideological crossover point in the story that’s typically been obscured by chaos in news coverage. Had the duo been charged under other federal statutes related to destruction of government property, much lighter sentences would have been available. The prosecutors’ choice was rooted in the firefighters’ earnest belief that the ranchers had been at best indifferent to their lives and at worst intentionally seeking to harm them. The resulting case would unearth unrelated ugly stories about the Hammonds’ homelife, including Steven’s physical abuse of Dwight’s grandson, and connect the 1-acre fire from 2006 to a much larger suspicious blaze from 2001 that was allegedly lit to cover up deer poaching.

But in the rural west, locals have a lot of sympathy for ranchers who take the freelancing approach to fire management that landed the Hammonds in federal prison. Anyone who manages lands in such places has had to light backburns to protect their livelihood; they just mostly care enough about human life and their neighbors’ own interests to conduct their operations more openly and carefully than the Hammonds had done in 2006. Whatever the Hammonds’ crimes according to the law, their offenses against the code of the west were subtler. Their failure to adequately or thoughtfully communicate with the firefighters was the problem, rather than the setting of the fires themselves.

The Krumbo Butte Fire debacle is therefore a story of people failing to talk to each other and look out for each other as both law and custom dictate. But in the hands of the federal courts, the Hammonds’ story morphed. When retiring federal judge Michael Hogan decided to defy the mandatory minimum sentencing rules for the arson charges on which the ranchers were convicted, he sparked a political conflagration. Judges can treat some sentencing guidelines as flexible, but not mandatory minimums. The judge was probably right that using an anti-terrorism statute to punish the Hammonds’ violations of fire regulations and western community norms was an unjust one, but an appeals court had no choice but to reverse him and order the Hammonds back to prison for the full five-year bid. Congress’ decision to treat all arsons on federal property in the same way they’d treat bomb plots in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing doomed the Hammonds to a half-decade term.

Trump’s real objective: Help big biz

All that miscommunication, overprosecution, and judicial grandstanding created an opening for Ammon Bundy and his rogue’s gallery of conspiracy theorists and would-be renegades. Allies of the Bundys have openly thirsted for a shooting war with federal officers for years. They almost got one in Malheur. After the feds declined to rush in for a shootout at the buildings the Bundy crew had occupied, Lavoy Finicum and Ammon’s brother Ryan decided to run a checkpoint on a nearby road. By the end of the resulting car chase, Finicum was dead, Ryan was convinced that the feds had tried to assassinate him, and the actual details of what the Hammonds had done a decade earlier were drowned out by the crackpot theories in which the Bundys have long trafficked.

A story that had once centered on fraying community relations on the range had morphed into the kind of cause celebre that the movement to erode federal authority over public lands has always needed.

Later that same year, as Donald Trump chewed and spat out every supposedly professional politician in his path, the land-privatization movement got something even more valuable than a warped national media story: Power. In less than 18 months, Trump’s team has moved millions of once-protected wilderness acreage in the Southwest back into drilling jeopardy; given up on the government’s winning legal position athwart foreign mining of Bristol Bay; invited the coal companies onto taxpayer land while re-opening a loophole to let them evade royalties payments on what they scavenge there; and generally cozied up to industry executives in every conceivable way.

The campaign is so aggressive and rapacious that the Houston Chronicle, hometown rag of the oil and gas business, even ran a headline about Trump’s aggression toward public lands — making otherwise-friendly Republicans nervous. Trump had put more than twice as much public land on the industry leasing block in his first year in office as George W. Bush had made available at the peak of his own drilling giveaway, the paper noted. Those leasing processes are playing out in unusually obscure fashion online, potentially concealing the identity – or nationality – of the firms benefiting from Trump’s giveaways.

No symbol of the U.S.’s natural beautify is sufficiently famous or sacred to spare it from this administration’s destructive impulses – not even the Grand Canyon. His move to de-protect almost all of the just-established Bears Ears National Monument invited uranium miners into the watershed that feeds into the country’s signature wild landmark.

Left to their own devices, western U.S. communities would be rallying to combat the coastal-elite president’s raid on their landscapes. The outdoor recreation industry, which generates close to a trillion dollars in annual revenue, isn’t shy about swinging its political weight around. Ranchers like the Hammonds can’t graze cows on polluted land. Traditionalist conservation groups still have some muscle to flex with the press and the politicians, if perhaps less than they once did. Together, those who make their living from the land as it is would be formidable opponents of those who prefer to make money by ruining it.

Divide that constituency, then, and you create space to do the kinds of unprecedented stuff Trump’s been getting up to on public lands. Luckily for the president, there’s already a longstanding energetic movement out west that’s committed to those kinds of divisive ideas. The Bundys, with their crackpottery, tend to discredit the humbler complaints of ranchers and timber cutters, and to inspire coastal types to the same sneering (and dildo-mailing) that those salt-of-the-earth folks hate. The Malheur standoff is therefore similar to the faux-controversy over professional athlete protests: a political winner for Trump no matter what actually, substantively happens – just so long as it stays prominent.

That’s why Trump didn’t just allay the sentencing injustice by commuting the Hammonds’ term and ordering their immediate release. That would have been the act of a peacekeeper. Coupled with diligent, interactive, inclusive work to get ranchers and feds talking to each other reasonably, a commutation could have begun to rebuild space for collaborative processes and positive relationships. That’s what the Hammonds’ neighbors in the Burns area told ThinkProgress they wanted to return to during the standoff itself. That’s what would best serve the joint hunter-rancher-hiker interest in conservation, freedom of movement, and sustainable wilderness spaces.

But people like the Bundys are convinced that only local governments should have any say in how erosion, fire, water, and invasive species are managed in the west. The federal officials who work to balance the needs of ranchers against the interests of a distant public that only infrequently visits these places on vacation should have no say, according to the sovereign citizen types.

By sending those people a clear thumbs-up, Trump is working to saw apart natural-if-complicated allegiances between families like yours and families like the Hammonds. The only people who win from such strife are the executives of distant international extraction conglomerates who couldn’t care less what happens to places like Malheur or Grand Staircase or Chaco Canyon after they’ve pulled every nickel of profitable gas, oil, uranium, and copper out of the ground you own.