Why Did The Bundy Brigade Take Over This Particular Oregon Wildlife Refuge?

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On Saturday an estimated 300 protesters meandered a mile from a Safeway parking lot in Burns, Ore. to the home of Dwight Hammond, one of two Hammond men now serving a federal sentence for arson on federal lands.

The crowd had traveled to southeastern Oregon from as far away as Florida, Montana and Idaho to show their support for the Hammonds, a family many out West had come to see as the symbol of long-simmering land disputes between the feds and ranchers. The protesters sang the Star Spangled Banner, waved American flags and carried their homemade, cardboard signs. Some brought the Hammonds cellophane-wrapped blush and yellow flowers and stuck them in a snow bank outside the family’s house.

Quickly, however, the protest in Burns transformed from a peaceful demonstration to an armed takeover. One observer told Talking Points Memo that from atop a snow bank in the Safeway parking lot Ammon Bundy ordered protesters to get in their cars and follow him 30 miles away to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge — the name translated from the French means “misfortune” or “tragedy.”

For outside observers, the choice to take a dramatic stand against the federal government at a wildlife refuge in about as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get in the Lower 48 seemed, well, odd. The small stone cottage that serves as the refuge’s visitors center and was unoccupied over the holiday weekend hardly cuts the profile of a modern day Alamo. But a closer look at the history of the Hammonds’ long contentious land disputes with the federal government shows that Malheur has been at the center of those confrontations, with Dwight Hammond allegedly making repeated death threats against the refuge’s managers.

The Hammonds’ connection with the refuge is exhaustive. In Harney County where the Hammonds lived and own a 12,000-acre ranch, much of their land was surrounded by the refuge, an arrangement that spurred decades-worth of conflicts between the prominent family and the feds.

While the Hammonds have distanced themselves from the unknown number of militia members now occupying the refuge, the armed militia’s list of grievances are not all that different from the ones the Hammonds have harbored.

According to the High Country News, Dwight Hammond, now 73, was known to refuge workers as far back as the 1980s as a reactionary who allegedly made repeated death threats against Malheur Wildlife Refuge managers in 1986, 1988, 1991 and 1994.

Dwight Hammond was repeatedly accused of moving his cows across the refuge’s lands at times that violated a permit from the refuge. He did little to deter his cattle from “trespassing along the streams and trampling young willows that refuge workers had planted to repair damage wrought by years of overgrazing.”

According to that same High Country News story from 1994, “a thick file” at the refuge headquarters painted a picture of law-defying father and son duo who tested the patience of federal officials for decades and repeatedly ignored refuge orders.

It was not until August 3, 1994, however, that the Hammonds had their first criminal confrontation with the refuge.

It began as a long simmering water dispute. The Hammonds had had grazing access to “a lush waterfowl haven,” but had repeatedly trespassed on the land at times outside of what a permit allowed. The feds blocked the Hammonds access to the area and planned to erect a fence to keep the Hammonds away. But, to stop the construction, news reports from the incident allege Dwight Hammond “parked his Caterpillar scraper squarely on the boundary line and disabled it, removing the battery and draining fuel lines.” Then, when agents attempted to move the vehicle, Dwight Hammond entered the scene, “leaped to the controls of the scraper and hit a lever that lowered the bucket, narrowly missing another special agent.” His son Steven, meanwhile, verbally assaulted authorities. According to a report from the Oregonian, nine federal officers arrested Dwight Hammond and took him into custody.

Much like today, the arrest became a cause de jour for some western ranchers in the Oregon high dessert. In the days following, an estimated 500 people rallied on the Hammonds’ behalf. Stickers circulated that urged individuals to “Stop Clinton’s War on the West” and locals set up a legal defense fund to help the Hammond family. According to the High Country News, the conflict attracted the attention of the American Land Rights Association and Congressman Bob Smith (R-OR) who actually wrote a letter to assist the Hammonds to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Dwight Hammond was never prosecuted for the 1994 incident.

In the meantime, the Hammonds continued to be fixtures in the community. “They and their wives became civic anchors,” an Oregonian story published last week chronicled. “They served on school boards and non-profit boards. They were active in industry groups.”

Still, the Hammonds legal entanglements continued. In 1999, the Oregonian reported that Steven Hammond had yet another run-in with authorities. Hammond allegedly “confronted” a group of hunters who were on public lands near ranch property. The next day the same hunters were startled by the sound of Steven Hammond’s gun, but Hammond maintained that “he was shooting at rabbits.” According to the Oregonian, Hammond was convicted for “interfering with use of public land.”

It was, however, the most recent arson charges and conviction that became the catalyst for out-of-state militia types. In 2012 Dwight and Steven were convicted of setting fires to territory managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Hammonds were accused of setting two separate fires; one in 2001 and another in 2006.

According to several news reports and Department of Justice files, the Hammonds maintained that their fire in 2001 was merely meant to be a “control burn” to rid their property of invasive species, but witnesses testified at the trial that the fire that scorched 139 acres of BLM land had actually been set to cover up the illegal hunting of deer.

Steven Hammond was also convicted of setting another fire in 2006 in an effort to protect his own property from a series of lightening fires that had started.

One of the key witnesses in the case against the Hammonds was family member Dusty Hammond, who as a young man had lived with Dwight. Dusty Hammond kept details of the 2001 fire under wraps for nearly a decade out of fear of retribution. In 2004, it was alleged that he had been abused by the Hammonds. According to a report from the New York Daily News, Steven and Dwight Hammond allegedly engaged in a long list of cruelty from forcing 16-year-old Dusty Hammond to consume chewing tobacco to sand papering his chest and leaving scars in an effort to “erase a home-brew tattoo from Dusty’s chest.”

Early this week–just as protesters dug in at the Malheur refuge–the Hammonds turned themselves in to serve their sentences for arson.

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