SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Two imprisoned ranchers who were convicted in 2012 of intentionally setting fires on public land in Oregon will be freed after President Donald Trump pardoned them on Tuesday.
The move by Trump raised concerns that others would be encouraged to actively oppose federal control of public land.
The imprisonment of Dwight and Steven Hammond prompted the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, led by two sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the group Defenders of Wildlife, noted that the Hammonds were convicted of arson, a serious crime.
“Whatever prompted President Trump to pardon them, we hope that it is not seen as an encouragement to those who might use violence to seize federal property and threaten federal employees in the West,” Clark said.
The dozens of armed people who occupied the refuge near the Hammond ranch for 41 days said the Hammonds were victims of federal overreach. They changed the refuge’s name to the Harney County Resource Center, reflecting their belief that the federal government has only a limited right to own property within a state.
Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan faced trial themselves after an armed standoff at their Nevada ranch in 2014 that was sparked by land-grazing fees. A federal judge in January dismissed the charges against them.
Cliven Bundy said he was glad Trump pardoned the Hammonds.
“Finally, an elected official did something,” Bundy said. “He can’t give them back their life. They’re going to go back to ranching and put their lives together the best they can.”
The Hammonds were being held at a federal detention center south of Los Angeles. It wasn’t immediately clear when they’d be released.
The Hammond family, well-known in eastern Oregon, had been embroiled for years in a legal dispute over several fires that damaged federal property.
Dwight and his son Steven Hammond were convicted of arson and faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan said such a lengthy sentence “would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality ... it would be a sentence which would shock the conscience to me.”
Hogan instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven Hammond to a year and one day. However, in October 2015, a federal appeals court ordered them to be resentenced to the mandatory minimum.
In a statement Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called that decision “unjust.”
“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West,” she said. “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”
The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge ended shortly after occupier LaVoy Finicum was shot to death by Oregon State Police at a roadblock and Ammon and Ryan Bundy were arrested.
The brothers and five other defendants were acquitted in 2016 by a federal court jury in Portland on charges stemming from the takeover.
Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who lobbied the White House for the pardon of the Hammonds, said Trump’s decision was “a win for justice, and an acknowledgement of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West.”
The pardons are the latest in a growing list of clemency actions by Trump. He has said he’s considering thousands of other cases —famous and not.
Aides say Trump has been especially drawn to cases in which he believes the prosecution may have been politically motivated — a situation that may reflect his own position at the center of the ongoing special counsel investigation into election meddling by Russia.
Many people believe the president is sending a signal to former aides and associates caught up in the probe.