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Zinke trumps pardon of ranchers

In one of his last acts before resigning under a cloud of scandal, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke doubled down on President Donald Trump’s pardon of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond and ordered the Bureau of Land Management to renew a 10-year grazing permit to the father and son.

The Hammonds were convicted by a jury in 2012 of illegally setting fires on federal land in Harney County where they had grazing rights for their cattle. Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven both were convicted of setting a fire in 2001, and the son was convicted of setting a second fire in 2006. The Hammonds said the fires were back-burns that got out of hand; prosecutors said they were deliberately set and that one was done to conceal evidence of deer poaching.

The convictions followed years of disputes between the Hammonds and federal authorities dating to the 1980s and involving death threats and refusal to pay grazing fees. Federal prosecutors charged the pair under a law enacted in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing designed to impose harsh punishment for domestic terrorism. Under that law, arson committed against federal property carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

The Hammonds argued that sentence was unduly harsh, and U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan agreed, sentencing Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven to one year. They served that time and were released, but prosecutors appealed the sentences, and an appeals court found Hogan did not have the authority to deviate from the minimum and another federal judge ordered the Hammonds to prison.

The resentencing ignited outrage among anti-government extremists and prompted Ammon Bundy to lead a 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The Hammonds rejected Bundy’s help and reported to prison as ordered.

Last year, the Hammonds’ attorneys asked President Trump to commute their sentences, which would have released them but left their sentences intact. Instead the president issued a full pardon, declaring their sentences “unjust.” A pardon does not declare the recipient innocent, but it implies forgiveness.

The Hammonds didn’t necessarily deserve five-year sentences. But there is no question they committed the crimes of arson and the destruction of public property by setting fire to land that belongs to everyone. Now they have been given the government’s permission to resume running cattle on the same land they torched in defiance of federal authority. That can only serve to further embolden those like the Bundys who believe themselves entitled to openly defy government ownership of public land.