A Worthy Pardon for the Hammonds

Read the original article by the WSJ Editorial Board at wsj.com here.

The pardon power has its most compelling use when correcting a government injustice. President Trump used his authority on Tuesday for precisely such a purpose in pardoning Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven.

In 2011 the federal government charged the two Oregon ranchers with arson and destruction of federal property for having done nothing more than utilize the same fire-management tools that the government routinely employs. The Hammonds had set fires in 2001 and 2006—one to fight invasive species, another to protect against a wildfire. Both fires unintentionally spread to burn nearby public grazing land—139 acres in the first case, a single acre in the second.

A federal jury acquitted them of most charges but found them guilty of setting the fires—which they’d already admitted. A federal judge gave them reduced sentences, saying that anything more would “shock the conscience” and be “grossly disproportionate to the severity” of their conduct. We wrote about their case in 2016.

The Obama Justice Department, in its usual restraint against its political opponents, appealed and persuaded a different judge in 2015 to impose a mandatory five years each under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Yes, a terrorism statute.

The exercise smacked of retribution and coercion, since the Hammonds remain one of the last private ranching families in the Harney Basin. The feds have been on a campaign to drive out private landowners to expand a federal bird refuge around Malheur Lake. In recent years the feds have revoked grazing permits, mismanaged water to let ranchlands flood, and harassed ranchers with regulatory actions.

The Hammonds refused to give in to these tactics and ended up in prison. The elder Dwight Hammond, 76, has now served three years, while Steven, 49, has served four. They have also paid $400,000 to settle a federal civil suit against them.

The federal treatment of the Hammonds fueled the 40-day citizen takeover in 2016 of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That occupation (which the Hammonds did not endorse) was inexcusable and ended in violence, though it highlighted the growing fury of Western landowners over the federal government’s bullying practices.

The Trump Interior and Agriculture Departments are attempting to rein in these abuses, reminding federal employees that private landowners are crucial for conservation and economic stability across rural America. The change in policy is overdue, as was justice for the Hammonds.

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