There’s a distinct chance that if you haven’t been living under a rock and you looked at the news this week you’ve heard about an armed standoff going on in Oregon between the BLM and a militia group over the treatment of the Hammond family. And if you have been living under a rock, surprise! Armed standoff time!
Because there are a gazillion factors going on with this situation, I thought I’d read about it for an extra day before doing a blog post over it. It seems that two ranchers have admitted to and been convicted of starting fires that burned 140 acres BLM land, which means they needed to serve prison time. They had already served what was required by the judge that ruled on the case initially, however, they have been ordered back to prison by the appellate court because that court felt the sentences did not meet the minimum required by law.
For those who don’t deal with Western ranching, there is a lot of confusing parts here. What is the BLM? Why were these fires started? In addition, there are some perspectives that are lost if you haven’t visited eastern Oregon. For the first question, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the government agency the oversees lands owned by the federal government. BLM land is rented to ranchers for cattle grazing at low rates, however, most BLM land is fairly worthless for grazing. Consequently, it takes 40 acres of land just to have enough grazing for one cow.
It is obvious from reading that the BLM and the Hammonds were not friends before the fire incident. The Hammonds sued the BLM twice for separate issues and won both lawsuits. Whether this had any influence on these events is unclear, however, what is known is the Hammonds started two fires on their own property that spread to BLM lands. The first one was to clear invasive weeds (which is something that is very common in ranching, as I wrote about last year), the other was a back-burn to prevent a wildfire on BLM lands from destroying their feed sources. Because both spread to BLM lands and burned 140 acres (which considering how worthless an acre is out there means it didn’t do too much) they were prosecuted under Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. They were charged on nine counts, but only convicted for these two fires they admitted to starting.
Now this is what is concerning to me and all people who use fire as a management tool: if something out of our control causes a tiny bit of federal land to burn (be it a wind shift, a stray ember, or whatnot), we now can be prosecuted as terrorists and end up with five years in federal prison? The BLM claims there is more to the story, that the first fire was used to cover up poaching, but the Hammonds weren’t convicted of poaching. Unless this suddenly became Soviet Russia instead of the U.S.A., people are innocent unless they are proven guilty. The Hammonds have not been convicted of poaching, therefore claiming it was a cover-up is meaningless without a conviction.
I’m not the only person alarmed by this situation. The Oregon Farm Bureau is also concerned, and issued a press statement condemning the BLM’s actions. Is anyone who ranches near public land, even if they do not lease it, at risk of the same fate?
What is more frustrating is when the government makes a similar mistake they do not have the same consequence. In April of 2013, a Forest Service prescribed burn near Lemmon, South Dakota, got out of control and burned 11,000 acres of both public and private land. No restitution was paid to the ranchers who lost forage and fences, and no one went to prison.
I wish I could explain more about this situation, however, through what I could research this was all I know. It is unsettling, and considering the government’s attempted land grab with the Waters of the United States proposal, anyone who makes a living from the land has a reason to be quite nervous. And while I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to start an armed standoff over this issue, I wonder if the Bundy brothers hadn’t stepped in, would anyone have know what was happening to the Hammonds?
Photo credit: http://ww2.valdosta.edu/~ibhuntington/u3a2, and I highly suggest you look at this page because it is quite funny.