Oregon ranchers charged with arson, threats

Two Oregon ranchers described by friends as "the salt of the earth" have been indicted on charges they set a series of range fires going back to the early 1980s because they were frustrated with the time it took for the government to permit controlled burns to improve cattle grazing.

The 19-count federal indictment released Monday charges Dwight L. Hammond Jr., 68, and his son, Steven D. Hammond, 41, with setting at least eight late-summer fires on federal lands on the flanks of Steens Mountain since 1982. Most fires were under 250 acres, but one in 2006, called the Granddad, was 46,000 acres.

The Hammonds, who run a large cattle ranch, were not taken into custody. Arraignment was set for July 6 in U.S. District Court in Eugene on charges that include conspiracy, arson, depredation of federal property, threatening federal officers and tampering with a witness. The charges carry penalties up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

The family ranch, on private and leased federal lands, is in the remote rural community of Diamond in Harney County, where cattle outnumber people and ranchers have long been at odds with conservationists over grazing on public lands.

The investigation started in August 2006, after a U.S. Bureau of Land Management firefighter spotted Dwight Hammond in an area on Steens Mountain where fires started, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall said. The indictment mentions physical evidence that includes a boot print and a tire track from a military-style Jeep.

They were arrested in 2006 by local authorities but never formally charged, Engdall said.

As the investigation continued last August, the indictment alleges the Hammonds threatened a BLM rangeland manger in Burns, Joe Glascock, that they would put the blame for the biggest of the fires on him if he did not make the problem "go away."

"We understand the need for prescribed burns," which can improve the quality of grazing in sagebrush country when done with proper precautions, Engdall said from Eugene.

"Wildland fires, however, are extremely dangerous when they are uncontrolled and have the potential to cause great harm to the rangeland. Anyone that is potentially setting fires without first making preparations that the fires will be controlled puts everyone at risk. Our hope with the prosecution of this case is, one, to bring that to the attention of the general public, and two, to bring accountability for the alleged wrongful acts of the Hammonds."

Dwight and Steven Hammond did not immediately return phone calls to their homes. Portland defense attorney Lawrence Matasar did not immediately return telephone calls for comment.

Bill Hoyt, a Cottage Grove rancher and president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said there are no better people in the world than the Hammonds.

"These folks are just salt of the earth. I mean really, really good folks," Hoyt said. "I feel terrible for them. My instincts tell me if I had to choose between Dwight Hammond and BLM, I would choose Dwight Hammond in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat. That comes from a biased point of view, I suppose. He is a great, great rancher and a very solid citizen."

Steven Hammond serves on the school board for the remote community of Frenchglen, where teacher Carolyn Koskela said she could count on him and his father to help her whenever she needed it.

"I actually stood in the snow and rain and dug up a septic tank at the school with them before," she said.

The indictment paints a different picture. It alleges that in 2001, Steve Hammond fired into a herd of deer, with the bullets passing over the heads of a rival hunting party on federal land leased by the Hammonds for grazing, then set fires that moved toward the hunters' camp. It also charges them with setting fires that threatened BLM firefighters already fighting a fire.

"Hammond family members have publicly expressed their displeasure with BLM about the land use management methods of the BLM," the indictment read. "Because the BLM 'takes too long' to complete the required environmental studies before doing controlled rangeland burning, the Hammonds have opposed BLM management of the rangelands and have burned the rangelands on their own.

"The Hammonds also have ignited uncontrolled fires under cover of naturally occurring dry lightning storms which occur on the western slopes of the Steens Mountain in late summers."

The indictment also charges Dwight Hammond with flying a private airplane over fires that were closed to air traffic and piloting a plane without proper medical certification.

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