By Maxine Bernstein

The Oregonian

BURNS — Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, fresh from federal prison following a pardon by President Donald Trump, stepped off a private jet at Burns Municipal Airport on Wednesday morning to a crush of well-wishers and their family.

“There’s no way we can thank everybody enough,” Dwight Hammond said with his arm around his wife, Susie.

A short time later, the crowd that had gathered started clapping and a chorus of “welcome home” and “we love you” broke out.

People started gathering at the airport several hours earlier with American flags, signs and stickers handed out and slapped on cars reading: “Trump freed the Hammonds! He is our president!”

“We supported them from the beginning and today’s a big day,” said resident Talia Ward, who joined the crowd with her daughter Dakota, 9, and son Tyson, 6.

The father and son’s return to Burns comes two and a half years after protesters marched through the city in the middle of southeastern Oregon’s high desert to denounce their impending court-ordered return to prison in January 2016. The Hammonds were leaving then to serve out mandatory minimum sentences of five years for setting fires to public land.

The case inflamed their backers, drew support from right-wing militias and gave rise to the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

“The whole world knows the name Hammond because of the refuge takeover,” said Jason Patrick, who served time on a federal conspiracy charge related to the occupation. He was among those gathered at the airport.

Dwight Hammond, 76, and Steven Hammond, 49, were convicted in 2012 of arson on Harney County land where they had grazing rights for their cattle. Both were convicted of setting a fire in 2001, and the son was convicted of setting a second fire in 2006.

The Hammonds accepted the Pendleton jury verdicts and agreed to waive their right to an appeal. A federal judge initially sentenced the father to three months in prison and the son to one year, ruling that the mandatory minimum set under an expansive federal law punishing terrorism was “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”

They served the time and were out of prison when federal prosecutors challenged the shorter terms before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and won. Another federal judge in 2015 sent the ranchers back to complete the full sentences.

The nonprofit Protect the Harvest, founded by oil executive Forrest Lucas to support American farmers, ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts and animal owners, worked behind the scenes with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, to get the ear of the White House in considering the clemency petitions filed by each Hammond.

“We brought it to the attention of the vice president,” said David Duquette, a Hermiston resident who serves as national strategic planner for the advocacy group. “Mike Pence and Forrest Lucas are good friends.”

Lucas, the multimillionaire oil magnate and backer of the Indianapolis Colts, and Pence, an Indiana native, have known each other for a long time, Duquette said.

Duquette was so confident something was afoot that he got a hotel room Tuesday in Long Beach, California, near the Terminal Island federal prison where the Hammonds have been held. They walked out of the prison around 2 p.m. Tuesday, about 6 1/2 hours after Trump pardoned them.

Lucas was set to fly into California early Wednesday to bring the Hammonds to Burns in his eight-seater Cessna Citation Bravo.

Several convoys of supporters from Central Oregon and elsewhere were planning to converge in Burns to help greet the Hammonds.

Outside the Hammond home on Court Avenue in downtown Burns, an American flag was flying by the front door and a huge banner sat on the front lawn that read, “Thank you President Trump You Freed the Hammonds.”

As of this month, Dwight Hammond has served two years and nine months in prison and 31 months of supervised release. His son has served three years and four months in prison and two years of supervised release.

While occupiers of the Malheur refuge celebrated the presidential pardon, public land advocates and federal land management officials expressed concern that it will embolden “lawless extremists” and put park rangers, public land managers and wildland firefighters at risk.

Convicted refuge occupier Jon Ritzheimer, serving a federal sentence of one year and a day for his role in the takeover, wrote in a letter to his wife that she posted on Facebook: “I have said from the very start of all this that if it got the Hammonds out even one day sooner then it was all worth it.”

Yet Steven Grasty, a former Harney County commissioner, credited Walden and organizations such as the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association for achieving the Hammonds’ freedom, not the refuge occupiers led by Ammon Bundy who seized on the ranchers’ case.

“The Bundys complicated this. They made it worse,” Grasty said. “The Bundys didn’t know the Hammonds. They used them.”

Lyle Hammond said his father and younger brother were in shock after they learned of their pardons. They stayed Tuesday night with family in California before heading home to Oregon.

As Lyle Hammond stood in the sunshine at the airport waiting for the plane to land, he said: “We just want to get on with raising cows.”