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 of the protesters took their guns and went to a nearby wildlife refuge to occupy the remote federal outpost. This act of civil disobedience, led by cowboys and backed by well-armed military veterans, has attracted worldwide media attention.
The protesters say they simply want the ranchers released from prison, and control of the federally managed public lands turned over to local authorities.
According to court records, the two ranchers (Dwight and Steven Hammond) lit a grass-fire to create a fuel break on their own vast ranch land to stop summer lightning fires headed in their direction.
Years before they had ignited a prescribed burn in autumn, also on their own land, to improve range health.
Although the Hammond family 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 to having lit the fires, a common range management practice. They also put the fire out when it wandered off of their property.
But because a portion of public land considered to be federal property was damaged, the father and son duo faced a minimum penalty of 5 years in prison and a maximum sentence of death under a federal anti-terrorism law.
When the judge recognized the range management fires were not at all conducive to the stiff sentencing under the terrorism law, he issued a much lighter sentence. But federal bureaucrats in charge of the public lands persisted until the ranchers were re-sentenced under the harsh federal terrorism law. And that is what caused the uprising in Oregon.
Under local control, it is unlikely this controversy would have ever happened. The Hammond ranch situation would have been resolved under state law by local juries, judges, and officials accountable to their local communities. The conflict most likely would have been resolved with a whole lot more common sense, and in accordance with the will of the people.
Instead, the Hammonds were charged with destroying “federal property” and faced a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison and a maximum sentence of death under the federal “Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996”, a law enacted by Congress in response to the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building.
It’s hard to disagree with Nicole Kuchenbuch, the Farm Bureau President who said it’s “outrageous and hypocritical” of our federal government to bring terrorism charges against two Oregon ranchers for range management fires they started on their own land, when the federal government itself uses the same practices.
Last summer Kuchenbuch fought a fire alongside firefighters at her family ranch and begged 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 1 million acres of wildfire in Okanogan County, WA these past two summers. According to County Commissioner Jim DeTro, one-third of the acres lost in the Okanogan, North Star and Tunk Block fires of 2015 were caused by federal agency backburning. Several ranches lost private timber, grazing grounds, hay, barns and equipment to agency backburning that ranchers opposed.
According to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service’s 2013 prescribed burn near Lemmon, South Dakota accidentally consumed 11,000 acres of public and private land. When locals sued for $2.5 million in 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 widespread problems of a distant federal bureaucracy in control of local land management decisions. As the Chair of Montana’s Study of Federal Land Management I can attest the problems are severe and numerous throughout western America.
I understand the frustrations, but pray the situation in Oregon is decided peacefully. There is little reason to expect that serious conflicts with federal land management will cease until a more reasonable, locally driven approach to public land governance is instituted. My active efforts in the public policy arena to #FreeTheLands will continue until proper reforms are made, more sensible public land management laws are instituted, and potentially dangerous confrontations between citizens and federal agents can be avoided.
Submitted by Senator Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls, Montana on January 19, 2016.
You may contact Sen. Fielder by email at Sen.Jennifer.Fielder@mt.gov, or write to her at P.O. Box 2558 Thompson Falls, MT 59873. Fielder is also the CEO of the American Lands Council, an organization dedicated to help #FreeTheLands.
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