INTERIOR

FWS wants to expand refuge with imprisoned ranchers' land

The Hammond family, whose legal troubles inspired armed militants to seize the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, owns one of just two remaining private tracts that the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to buy for the century-old refuge in southeast Oregon's Harney County, according to a Greenwire analysis of federal and county property records.

About 950 acres of the approximately 12,000-acre Hammond ranch sits within Malheur's approved acquisition boundary, the area within which FWS is authorized to negotiate with landowners willing to sell their properties.

Acquisition boundaries, which are sometimes significantly larger than the existing FWS-controlled land, are typically approved by the agency's director or occasionally by legislation and serve as the limit to the growth of the refuge.

Malheur, which was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, has expanded to encompass almost 188,000 acres, nearly all of its approved size. FWS says it is not actively seeking to purchase the Hammond family's land, but the militants -- and even property rights advocates who oppose the armed occupation -- doubt the agency's claim.

Ammon Bundy, who along with his brother Ryan is leading the militia that's been holed up the refuge since Jan. 2, alleged last month in a message to government officials that the extended prison sentences that father-and-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond received for arson were "an effort to force the Hammond's [sic] to sell their ... property to a federal agency."

That is one of the few issues on which Chuck Cushman, the founder and executive director of the American Land Rights Association, and Ammon Bundy see eye-to-eye.

"I don't agree with his tactics," Cushman said of Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven, organized an armed standoff against Bureau of Land Management officials in 2014. "But his overall theme is correct."

FWS and BLM, whose property also surrounds the Hammond ranch, "saw an opportunity and they went after them on little fires," Cushman argued in an interview earlier this week.

The Hammonds -- Dwight, 73, and Steven, 46 -- were convicted in 2012 of using fire to maliciously damage U.S. property after they set a couple of blazes that together burned around 140 acres of federal land. The Hammonds claimed the fires were necessary to prevent the spread of invasive juniper trees and wildfire, but the government successfully argued that they were covering up an illegal deer hunt and put firefighters' lives at risk (Greenwire, Jan. 5).

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan sentenced Dwight to three months in prison, and Steven was required to spend one year and one day behind bars, which they both did during the course of 2013.

But U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni challenged their punishments because the judge didn't follow minimum sentencing guidelines set out in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a law passed in 1996 after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the Hammonds were ordered to return to prison for a five-year sentence, with credit for time they had already served.

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Cushman argues that federal officials pursued the stiffer sentences for the Hammonds "because they want to force them to sell. The whole thing is about the refuge, and the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been after this ranch for years," said the activist, who has known the Hammond family for decades.

"It's taken them 20 years to figure out how to get the Hammonds. But they're doing it now," he added.

The Bundy militia, which initially pledged to occupy Malheur until the Hammonds are pardoned, said they will announce their departure plans sometime today (E&ENews PM, Jan. 12).

Part of Malheur acquired under condemnation threat

Adding to property rights advocates' suspicion of the federal government's recent moves against the Hammonds is its long history of strong-arming private landowners into selling -- even in Harney County.

In 1945, for example, the Interior secretary, who oversees FWS, requested that condemnation proceedings be filed for nearly 11,000 acres of private property within the Malheur lakebed, according to the refuge's 2013 comprehensive conservation plan. During condemnation hearings two years later, the landowners successfully argued that the $10-per-acre price that the federal government offered was 10 times too low, leading the government to drop its case.

By 1956, however, the refuge had managed to acquire through purchase or land exchanges all of the lakebed land, the conservation plan says.

The 950 acres within Malheur's acquisition boundary that the Hammonds own was obtained by the family in a 1981 land exchange with Fish and Wildlife, in which they gave the government 480 acres adjacent to Harney Lake in the northwest corner of the refuge, FWS spokesman Jason Holm said in an email.

But he also repeatedly emphasized that the "Service has no current plans to acquire property from the Hammonds."

Holms added that "the Service now has a willing seller policy for land acquisition. Condemnation is rarely used by the Service these days as a land acquisition tool."

An expert on Malheur cast doubt on the agency's ability to use the justice system to pressure the Hammond family into giving up their tract of land within the refuge's acquisition boundary.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist so I don't see any way that the current refuge manager could have somehow influenced the prosecutorial decision" to appeal the Hammonds' initial sentences, said Nancy Langston, a professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University, who has written a book about Malheur. She also noted that the Hammonds have a history of being accused of threatening to hurt or kill federal officials.

Lawyers for Hammond family, which is not speaking to the press, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But Cushman, who established his land rights group in 1978 to fend off unwanted acquisitions from the National Park Service, argued that the Hammonds are model citizens who have been unjustly targeted by the federal government.

"Listen, these people are on the school board. They hold a science fair on their ranch for local kids. They provide meat to charities. These are upstanding members of the community" and longtime members of his group, he said.

Yet the Hammonds were "arrested under a statute that was passed after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Bureau [of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] building in Oklahoma City -- an anti-terrorism law that say the minimum sentence is five years," Cushman said.

What federal officials are "trying to do," he claimed, "is undercut the family, make it so it can't afford to keep the ranch going, and force the Hammonds to sell. That's the whole underpinning of this controversy."

Twitter: @corbinhiar Email: chiar@eenews.net

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