The activists who began occupying government buildings in the Oregon wilderness over the weekend say that they’re protesting how federal authorities treated rancher Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, his middle-aged son.
Federal authorities charged the Hammonds with arson after they set a series of fires that spread to public land. A 2001 fire accidentally burned beyond their property line, according to The New York Times. The Department of Justice says it was set to cover up an illegal deer hunt, while the men say that they were burning away an invasive plant species on their land. Years later in 2006, “a burn ban was in effect while firefighters battled blazes started by a lightning storm on a hot day in August,” the newspaper reported. “Steven Hammond had started a ‘back burn’ to prevent the blaze from destroying the family’s winter feed for its cattle.” It was reported by Bureau of Land Management firefighters in the area, and the Justice Department notes that they “took steps to ensure their safety.” It burned about an acre of public land, causing less than $1,000 in damage. Charged with a number of crimes related to arson, the father was convicted of just one count of arson while the son was convicted of two counts for the wilderness fires. The government used an anti-terrorism statute to secure its convictions.
The statute imposed a mandatory minimum sentence: 5 years imprisonment under the Orwellian-sounding Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan felt that five-year sentences were “grossly disproportionate” and would “shock his conscience,” given the context of the case. He sentenced the older man to three months in federal prison and the son to concurrent one-year sentences. Those punishments inspired no radical activism.