On the House floor Tuesday evening, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., gave an impassioned speech about how heavy-handed federal bureaucracy had led to armed protesters taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County.
What began as a protest over the five-year imprisonment of two ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, became a challenge to the constitutionality of the federal government owning huge tracts of land, said Walden.
“Twenty five years of fighting for Eastern Oregon sort of poured out on the floor last night,” he said in a follow-up interview.
He said the speech was originally going to be five minutes in length. However, he ended up at the podium for about 27 minutes to address the seriousness of the situation playing out on the ground in the American West.
Walden became emotional several times as he addressed the high level of frustration experienced by citizens in Harney County, which has 72 percent of its lands in federal ownership. He said that same frustration was present in rural areas of most western states that were 50 percent or more in public ownership, including Oregon with more than 60 percent.
“This is a government that has gone too far for too long,” Walden told his peers. “Now, I’m not condoning this takeover in any way. I want to make that clear. I don’t think it is appropriate. There is a right to protest but I think they have gone too far. But I understand and hear their anger.”
CALL FOR ACTION
He called upon President Barack Obama to defuse the situation by not acting unilaterally to create a monument of 2.5 million acres in nearby Malheur County. He said the president should at least stop being “coy” about his plans and listen to citizens, who were furious about additional acreage being taken out of private use.
“The president should say: ‘I not going to do a national monument. I am not going to add more fuel to this fire in the West,” said Walden.
He also said the Bureau of Land Management should restore the Hammonds’ grazing permit so Susie, the matriarch of the family, could survive economically while her husband Dwight, 73, and son Steve, 43, were in prison.
“What possible good could come out of bankrupting a grandmother trying to keep a ranch together while her husband and son sit in prison? What possible good?” asked Walden.
He said more than half of his district, which covers 20 counties and is the seventh or eighth largest in the nation, was in federal ownership.
He said management decisions made by bureaucrats often ignored public input and the collaborative work of counties and citizens to find a compromise for land protections that would not cause more economic distress.
For example, he said the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Area had been crafted over years by federal officials and Harney County government leaders and citizens.
However, he said “arrogant” agency heads had circumvented the intent of the law to the point that Congress had been forced to take action to bring them back into compliance. When 900 citizens in a less populated rural area attend a public hearing to express their anger, Walden said federal agents need to pay attention.
“Do you understand how frustrated I am?” he asked his peers. “Can you imagine how people on the ground feel? Can you imagine?”
At that point Walden’s tone changed to anger.
“If you are not there, you can’t. If you are not there, you can’t. You ridicule them.
“The Portland Oregonian is running a thing: What do you send? Meals for militia. Let’s have fun with this. This is not a laughing matter from any consequence. Nobody is going to win out of this thing.”
He called for a change in the mandatory minimum sentencing guideline under a federal anti-terrorism law that sent the Hammonds to prison for five years on arson convictions.
“I would argue the law was never intended to mete out that kind of punishment,” he said. “I know the Hammonds, I have known them for probably close to 20 years. They are longtime, responsible ranchers in Harney County.”
The Hammonds argued in court that their prescribed burns to kill invasive weeds and stop a lightning-caused fire from spreading had gotten out of control. Federal prosecutors convinced a jury they had set the fires to cover up poaching activities.
Walden said the Hammonds were serving time in prison for damaging 139 acres of BLM lands with no one injured or buildings destroyed.
Meanwhile, he said catastrophic wildfires on federal lands in and around Harney County since 2012 had burned 310,000 acres and threatened lives as well as destroyed private property.
“There was nobody sentenced under the terrorism act there. Oh heck no. It is the government. They weren’t sentenced. Nobody was charged. Oh, it just happened,” said Walden sarcastically.
He told House members that 799,974 acres across Oregon last summer and about 3.4 million acres had been consumed by fire in 2012.
The frustration expressed by local ranchers and farmers in past Chronicle reports about these issues was evidenced in Walden’s words and gestures.
“I have seen what happens when overzealous bureaucrats and agencies go beyond the law and clamp down on people. I have seen what courts have done. I have seen the time for Congress to act and then it has not,” he said.
His speech, which portrayed a wide range of emotions, including tears, captured national media attention.
“Greg talked to a number of colleagues who have thanked him for raising the issues,” said Andrew Malcolm, press secretary for Walden on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s really elevated a lot of issues that people who are not from the West don’t normally think about, don’t understand.”
Walden was joined by House Speaker Paul Ryan at a press conference on Wednesday and appeared on several TV shows to discuss the brewing situation in the southeastern corner of Oregon.
He told legislators from the East Coast that Harney County, if in their region, would be 10 times the size of Rhode Island and larger than Maryland.
He said the county covers 10,000 square miles and is inhabited by about 7,000 people.
“It is the public’s land. That is true. But what people don’t understand is the culture, the lifestyle of the great American West and how much these ranchers care about the environment, about the future, about their children, about America,” said Walden in his floor speech.
“And how much they believe in the Constitution — now we see the extent they will go in order to defend what they view as their constitutional rights.”
The Hammonds were convicted at a two-week federal jury trial in Pendleton of two arsons, in 2001 and 2006, and sentenced to three months and one year, respectively.
“Judge Michael Hogan, senior federal judge said: “I am not going to apply the mandatory minimum because, to me, to do so, under the Eighth Amendment, would result in a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here,” Walden said.
After the Hammonds served that time, federal officials took the rare step of appealing their sentences, arguing they had not received the mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the crime as mandated by law.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aikenin from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in October and sentenced both Hammonds to the full five-year term, but allowed them to report to prison after the holidays.
They reported to a federal prison in California on Monday.
“How do you have faith in a government that doesn’t ever listen to you?” Walden asked House members. “How do you have faith in a government, that, when elected representatives write a law, those charged with the responsibility of implementing it choose to go the other direction and not do so?
“That is what is breaking faith between the American people and their government, and that is what has to change.”
He said people in rural areas loved the land and their country — sending their children to fight in wars in higher rates than their urban counterparts. Walden said he had been to many funerals of fallen warriors within his district, at which point he broke down in tears.
“To my friends across eastern Oregon, I will always fight for you,” he said.
“But we have to understand there is a time and a way. Hopefully, the country through this understands we have a real problem in America: how we manage our lands and how we are losing them.”
He ended the speech by saying: “We need to be better at hearing people from all walks of life and all regions of our country and understanding this anger that is out there and what we can do to bring about correct change and peaceful resolution. It is not too late. We can do this. It is a great country. We have the processes to do it right.”