Oregon standoff has roots in 1996 anti-terrorism laws

Some analysts say a now-bloody standoff between armed militants and law enforcement at a national park in rural Oregon has its roots in a law Congress passed in the late 1990s in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing.

Dwight Hammond Jr., 74, and his son, Steven Hammond -- both of whom use federal land at the family ranch for grazing -- were re-sentenced last November for repeatedly starting wildfires on federal land under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which mandates a minimum sentence of five years in prison.

The initial sentencing judge ruled that to give the Hammonds a five-year sentence would result in a punishment “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offences,” according to federal court documents. Instead, Dwight and Steven received sentences of three months and one year, respectively. 

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams appealed the decision in November and the appeals court judge re-sentenced the men to the statutory minimum of five years.

“There’s a general sense that Congress went overboard when it passed a number of laws that mandate specific minimum sentences without regard to the context,” Stanford Law lecturer David J. Hayes told AMI Newswire. “I am with those who believe that judges should have discretion … to tailor the appropriate jail sentence to the case.” 

In early January, a group of protesters occupied the federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, partly in response to the Hammond resentencing.

Among them was Ammon Bundy, the son of the rancher Cliven Bundy, who got into an armed standoff with federal agents over allegations that he was repeatedly grazing without a permit on U.S. property in Nevada.

FBI and local sheriffs arrested eight of the protesters in a traffic stop Tuesday (Jan. 26) that resulted in the shooting death of the militants' de facto spokesman, LaVoy Finicum. Ammon was also shot, non-fatally, during the altercation.

The FBI released footage of the incident on Friday (Jan 29).

In spite of this week’s arrests, protesters continue to occupy the federal building.

At a press conference following the shootout, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) once again disavowed the protesters, but spoke to the general discontent ranchers have with federal policy in the West.

“Widespread frustration will continue until people in rural America feel like they are being heard and meaningful changes are made to federal land management policy,” Walden said.

Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said the effort by the federal government to create a 2.5-million-acre national monument in Malheur County, which neighbors Harney County where the Hammonds run their ranch, further exacerbates that frustration. When the national monument was proposed at a Town Hall in Adrian, Ore., last October, area ranchers complained that the monument, which would stop grazing, would decimate the local economy.

“Ranchers and community leaders are being told either agree to a big wilderness area or plan on getting a monument shoved down your throat,” Malcolm told AMI Newswire. “If the President wants to help reduce tension and restore trust, he should publicly back off this proposal.”

Hayes argued, however, that it is exactly the kind of process of public hearing that allows ranchers to come to an agreement with the federal government. There is a precedent, he said, for such action.

“For the Malheur refuge, there was a open, public process that led to, in 2013, a new management plan for the entire refuge,” Hayes told AMI. “It involved a lot of outreach to the local community.”