President Trump's unsurprising issuance of clemency on Tuesday for eastern Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond intensifies the messy, decades-long feud over enforcement of federal law on the government's vast holdings in the West.
The immediate effect will be to embolden individuals who feel they can use federally owned range land as they please, in defiance of federal law enforcement officials, land managers and others who are supposed to enforce federal policy and protect those lands. That seems to be the kind of scab Trump likes to tear off.
Both Hammonds were convicted of setting a range fire in 2001 that spread to federal land, and the son was convicted of setting a fire on federal land in 2006. A federal judge in Eugene, now-retired Michael Hogan, sentenced the father to three months in prison and the son to one year. Hogan said the five-year sentence the government sought under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was excessive. An appeals court overturned Hogan and five-year sentences were imposed. By the time of the clemency, the father had served two years and nine months and the son three years and four months.
Aside from the arsons, the Hammonds were long-time violators of grazing and wildland laws, federal officials say. Trump's clemency lauds the Hammonds as "devoted family men and respected contributors to their local community."
Perhaps five years was too much. It's hard to equate the Hammonds' crime with terrorism. Yet Hogan's sentence seems too light. Perhaps the time served is about right. News reports have said Trump "pardoned" the Hammonds, but that is not correct. A presidential pardon wipes out the conviction. Clemency, which Trump granted, keeps the conviction intact but reduces the punishment.
Federal officials have the unenviable job of ensuring compliance by wily ranchers, often armed, who may dispute whether the government is even the rightful owner of the land. It's no surprise authorities have struggled to come up with enforcement that everyone agrees is fair.
During the Bundy family occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016 — an event triggered by the Hammonds case — federal authorities never formally served the occupiers with trespass notices and told them to leave. Instead, they developed complex theories and charges involving conspiracy that carried long sentences and largely fell apart in the courtroom. Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted of all federal charges. Prosecutorial over-reach was gleefully alleged, with some justification.
The broader destructive effects of the clemency might be mitigated if Trump were to issue a statement expressing appreciation for the difficult and important law enforcement work by federal officials protecting public lands. But that would be too much to hope for.