By Senator Jennifer Fielder
Jan 27, 2016
When a couple ranchers face the death penalty for accidentally burning 140 acres of public land, but federal bureaucrats can burn thousands of acres of public -- and even private land -- without consequence, something is terribly wrong.
A few weeks ago several hundred citizens marched in protest to the rancher’s conviction in the remote rural town of Burns, Oregon.
Afterwards, about 15 armed protesters occupied vacant office buildings at a nearby wildlife refuge. It was an act of civil disobedience, led by cowboys and backed by well-armed military veterans, that drew worldwide attention.
The determined protesters said they wanted the Hammonds released from prison, and control of the federally managed lands turned back over to the people in the area, or to the local government. Why would they risk their lives to make such demands?
According to court records, the Hammonds lit grassfires in 2006 to create a fuel break, or backburn, on their own ranch to stop summer lightning fires headed in their direction. In 2001 they lit a prescribed burn, also on their own land, a common range management practice to control weeds and improve forage.
Although the record shows the Hammond ranch fires worked perfectly to improve and protect the range, the fires did encroach slightly onto adjacent federally controlled public land. The Hammonds openly acknowledged having lit the fires, and they also put the prescribed fire out when it wandered off of their property.
But because a portion of land under federal control was burned, arson charges were brought against the father and son duo under the “Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996”, a law enacted by Congress in response to the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing. This law carries a minimum penalty of 5 years in prison and a maximum sentence of death.
When the judge recognized the “crime” was not at all conducive to stiff sentencing under the terrorism law, he issued a much lighter sentence. Dwight and Steven served their time and returned to their families. But federal bureaucrats in charge of the public lands persisted for years until the Hammonds were re-sentenced under the harsh terrorism law. And that is what caused the uprising in Oregon.
Under local control, it is unlikely this controversy would have ever happened. The situation would have been resolved under state law by local juries, judges, and officials accountable to their local communities. The conflict would have been resolved in harmony with the will of the people, which is the way American government was designed to operate.
It’s hard to disagree with Nicole Kuchenbuch, a county Farm Bureau President who said it’s “outrageous and hypocritical” of our federal government to bring terrorism charges against the two Oregon ranchers when the federal government itself uses the same practices.
Last summer Kuchenbuch fought a fire alongside firefighters at her family ranch and instructed them not to backburn 1,000 acres of her family’s private land. But the federal agency did it anyway, destroying the private ranch’s timber, family cabin, corrals, and several miles of fencing. “We were told afterward that there is no restitution for our losses,” Kuchenbuch said.
Over twenty ranches have been lost as a result of wildfire in Okanogan County, WA these past two summers. According to County Commissioner Jim DeTro, one-third of the acres lost in the fires of 2015 were caused by federal agency backburning. Several ranches lost private timber, grazing grounds, hay, barns and equipment to agency induced burns.
In 2013 a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn near Lemmon, South Dakota accidentally consumed 11,000 acres of public and private land. When locals filed claims for damages, the federal government responded, “Our review of the claim discloses no liability on the part of the United States. Therefore, your Federal Tort Claims Act claim is denied.”
Conflict with federal land policies is nothing new, but the Oregon protest brings new light to the dangers of having a distant federal bureaucracy in control of local land management decisions. As the Chair of Montana's bi-partisan study of federal land management (SJ-15, 2013), I can attest the problems are severe and numerous throughout western America.
But rather than take up arms in what could become a deadly outcome, there is a better way to increase the local people’s voice in how our public lands are managed. Over 1,000 elected officials already support transferring federally controlled public lands to willing state or local governments, as do several presidential candidates. Support is growing as more and more people learn the facts about this issue.
There is little reason to expect that serious conflicts with federal land management will cease until a more reasonable, locally driven approach is instituted. This is why I strongly support the lawful, peaceful efforts of www.americanlandscouncil.org to #FreeTheLands
See ranchers being burned out by federal agencies here...