Ranchers react to E. Oregon land dispute

Mike Filbin, who runs the largest cattle operation in Wasco County, said ranchers have been fighting to keep their grazing rights on federal lands for decades. He shared his thoughts Monday on the standoff in Harney County.

The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association believes the federal government has violated the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by requiring two members of the Hammond family in Harney County to serve more time behind bars.

“We feel the Hammond’s situation is a classic case of double jeopardy,” said Jerome Rosa, president of the association.

“They were tried and convicted by a jury of their peers and have already served their sentences – this is not right.”

Maupin rancher Keith Nantz, who chairs OCA’s Young Cattlemen’s Committee, said the organization is working to help the Hammond family get back grazing permits they have lost for Bureau of Land Management lands.

“This is a multi-generational family of ranchers and we support their efforts to continue grazing cattle on public lands,” he said.

The permits were revoked after Dwight Hammond, Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, were convicted at a two-week jury federal jury trial in Pendleton of two arsons, in 2001 and 2006, and sentenced to three months and one year, respectively.

Although they served that time, federal officials took the rare step of

appealing their sentences, arguing they were not given the mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the crime they were convicted of.

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.

Their extended incarceration time began Monday. See related story this page for further details.

Two of Oregon’s federal officials have weighed in on the situation.

“What’s happening in Harney County is very troubling,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., on Monday.

“Law enforcement at all levels are working hard to keep everyone safe and resolve this peacefully. I’ll continue to be in close touch with community leaders and law enforcement as we monitor this situation.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a news report Monday that he had been briefed by the FBI agent in charge of dealing with the situation. He said most local residents do not support the protesters.

“The overwhelming majority of people there very much want to get on with their lives without this disruption and are not in sympathy with a bunch of outsiders,” he said.

Rosa said OCA is fundraising to help the Hammonds and working with both state and federal officials to have the grazing issue revisited by federal officials.

“We are working within the confines of the law on this case that has a long and complicated history,” he said. “We definitely feel there has been overreach by the government.”

Neither he nor Nantz wanted to comment further about the charges brought against the Hammonds. However, Nantz, who was a federal firefighter for eight years, blasted federal regulators for seeking such strong punitive measures against the Hammonds.

He said the two men were given prison time for burning about 140 federal acres when millions are scorched each year on these overgrown and unmanaged properties.

“I have personally seen the destruction that occurs on these and taxpayers are spending billions on suppression of catastrophic wildfires,” he said. “Yet, no one is held accountable for these damages.”

Dufur Gap Road rancher Mike Filbin said the Hammonds’ fight with the federal government over use of grazing lands and water rights began in the 1990s.

He said the same confrontations have been playing out for decades across the West, where 50 percent or more of states are in public ownership.

“You have a bunch of environmental activists that have gotten into these state and federal agencies and they don’t want cattle on these lands,” he said.

Filbin runs the biggest cattle operation in Wasco County with 450 cow-calf pairs.

He holds permits to graze some of his herd on about 40,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and U.S. Forest Service land and believes, based on his personal experience, that administrative processes are used to make an end-run around grazing laws.

For example, his permit once allowed 750 pair on Mount Hood, which is under Forest Service jurisdiction. Once management of the mountain turned to accommodating five million visitors a year, Filbin said rule changes began to undermine his operation.

The number of pairs he could graze was reduced to 500, then down to 100 and eventually to 50.

In addition, the amount of time that pairs could be on the public land was cut in half.

“It isn’t worth my time to haul them up there anymore so I haven’t used my permit for several years now,” said Filbin. “They (feds) have a way of getting what they want.”

He said it is difficult to understand that agenda when it results in U.S. beef producers being put out of business, leading to more imported meats from countries with fewer safety guidelines.

Filbin said it has also been difficult to see the full force of the law brought against the Hammonds for prescribed burns that got out of control. He said, based on his review of reports, the two men did not act maliciously or with any intent to cause harm, they were just trying to limit damage to the family property.

“These federal lands are a mess because they aren’t being managed properly,” said Filbin. “The media never tells the true story on the losses from these fires, not only in terms of cattle or other private property, but the elk, rabbits and other animals that are lost.”

He understands the anger of militants such as Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven Bundy, led a 2014 standoff with federal officials in Nevada over a grazing fee dispute. The younger Bundy and other activists have taken over federal buildings on the Malheur preserve to argue against what they view as illegal ownership of that property, as well as grazing lands, by the federal government

“Ranching is a way of life that’s being taken away from these families; something they’ve been doing for generations and the federal government is endangering,” said Filbin. “They feel this country’s going down the wrong path and there’s nothing that can be done about it because people don’t understand the issues – they don’t even know where their food comes from anymore — and Congress won’t deal with this administration and these agencies.”

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