Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is sponsoring a bill that would soften the federal statute used to convict the Harney County ranchers whose imprisonment was central to last year’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff.

The bill would exempt from prosecution people who violate the law under circumstances similar to the Hammonds’.

In 2012, Dwight Hammond and son Steven Hammond were convicted of setting fires on their ranch in 2001 and 2006 that spread to federal land. The Hammonds maintain the earlier fire was set to control invasive plants, while prosecutors maintained it was to cover up illegal hunting.

In 2006, Bureau of Land Management firefighters were battling nearby blazes sparked by lightning, and the Hammonds lit a backburn in an attempt to prevent the already-burning fires from encroaching on the winter feed for their cattle.

The Hammonds were tried under a federal statute that establishes a minimum of five and a maximum of 20 years in prison for any person who uses fire or explosives to damage or destroy or attempt to damage or destroy federal property.

However, U.S. District Judge Michael Robert Hogan declined to impose the minimum sentence on the Hammonds and said at the time doing so would “shock the conscience.”

The federal government appealed and won, negating the reduced sentences imposed by Hogan. The Hammonds were resentenced to five years each with credit for time served and returned to prison in January 2016.

The perceived mistreatment of the Hammonds was at the root of the demonstrations in and around Burns that led to the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at the same time the Hammonds were headed back to prison.

Demonstrators held the refuge headquarters for more than three weeks, at which point demonstration leader Robert “Lavoy” Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon State Police during a traffic stop between Burns and John Day. Most of the remaining occupiers fled, and the final holdouts surrendered to law enforcement Feb. 11.

Walden’s bill defines the circumstances under which the law would not apply, carving out exemptions that would likely have spared the Hammonds had they been in place at the time. Provided a fire was set on an individual’s private land for the purpose of protecting that property or as part of farming-, ranching- or timber-related vegetation management — and does not pose a serious threat of injury or damage to any individual or federal property — that individual would not be prosecuted.

Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said because a law cannot be adopted retroactively, the passage of Walden’s bill would have no effect on the Hammonds’ conviction or imprisonment.

Walden proposed an identical measure last year, according to Malcolm. Malcolm said the measure attracted five co-sponsors from Western states, but Congress ran out of time before the proposal could be considered.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com

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