EDITORIAL: Bundys, and the feds, need to be reined in

As the FBI seeks to end the citizen takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it’s worth reflecting on what is behind the rising civil disobedience in the American West. The armed occupation of federal buildings is inexcusable, but so are federal land-management abuses and prosecutorial overreach.

Activists on (Jan. 2) broke into an unoccupied building on the 187,000-acre federal refuge in eastern Oregon to protest the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers. The group’s spokesman is Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevadan who in 2014 came to national attention over his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. The younger Bundy is a political grandstander, and many in Oregon oppose his illegal siege.

The drama is bringing attention to legitimate grievances, especially the appalling federal treatment of the Hammond family. The Hammonds’ problems trace to 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside 89,000 acres around Malheur Lake as a bird refuge. The government has since been on a voracious land-and-water grab, coercing the area’s once-thriving ranchers to sell.

The feds have revoked dozens of grazing permits and raised the price of the few it issues. It has mismanaged the area’s water, allowing ranchlands to flood. It has harassed landowners with regulatory actions that raise the cost of ranching, then has bought out private landowners to more than double the refuge’s size.

The Hammonds are one of the last private owners in the Harney Basin, and they have endured federal harassment over their water rights, the revocation of their grazing permits, restricted access to their property, and prosecutorial abuse.

In 2001 the family told authorities it planned to set a managed fire on its land to fight invasive species. The fire accidently spread over 139 acres of public land before the Hammonds extinguished it. In 2006 the family tried to save its winter feed from a lightning fire by setting “back fires” on its property (a common practice), which burnt an acre of public land.

Years later, in 2011, the feds charged Dwight Hammond and his son Steven with nine counts under the elastic Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. A federal jury found them guilty only of setting the two fires they had admitted to starting, and federal Judge Michael Hogan sentenced the father to three months and the son to a year in prison. He said the federal minimum of five years would not meet “any idea I have of justice, proportionality” and would “shock the conscience.”

The feds appealed the sentence and another judge ordered both Hammonds to serve the full five years. They also owe $400,000 in supposed fire-related costs.

Many in rural Oregon view this as a government vendetta. Rusty Inglis, who worked for the Forest Service for 34 years and now runs a local Oregon farm bureau, recently told a trade magazine that it’s “obvious” that “the BLM and the wildlife refuge want that ranch.” The Oregon Farm Bureau called the sentences “gross government overreach.” The ideology of “national” land has become the club to punish private landowners who are the best source of economic stability and conservation.

The Bundy occupation of federal land can’t be tolerated, but the growing Western opposition to government harassment of private landowners ought to be a source of political concern. Ted Cruz and others are right to caution the occupiers against their sit-in, but the federal bureaucracy also needs to be reined in.

Updated: 
01/13/2016 - 1:59pm

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