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Showdown in the Malheur Marshes: the Origins of Rancher Terrorism in Burns, Oregon

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During the spring of 1995, shortly after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, James Ridgeway and I spent a couple of weeks traveling across the West for a series of stories in the Village Voice that chronicled  the rise of militant new rightwing movements of militias, white supremacists, Christian Identity sects and anti-government groups, including a profile of central Oregon rancher Dwight Hammond, now at the center of the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters near Burns.

In the early 1990s, Hammond repeatedly transgressed federal environmental laws, trespassed on federal lands and hurled death threats at federal wildlife officials. Little action was taken against Hammond by a timid Clinton administration. Emboldened, Hammond and some of his fellow ranchers continued over the next two decades to flagrantly flout environmental laws and harass federal officials. These activities finally culminated in an act of poaching on Steens Mountain and two arson fires. Hammond and his son were convicted in federal court and sentenced to five years in prison. That conviction sparked the armed takeover of federal buildings now unfolding in Burns. Here is our report from 1995. — JSC

In the high desert of central Oregon, lies Harney County, a site of a long-festering and intense confrontation between federal officials and the militant property rights movement. Here federal Fish and Wildlife Service agents sought to fence off a wetland that had been trampled by a rancher’s cows on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about thirty miles south of the dust-caked town of Burns.

In an affidavit, Earl M. Kisler, a Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer, said that rancher Dwight Hammond had repeatedly threatened refuge officials with violence over an eight year period. On one occasion Hammond told the manager of the federal refuge that “he was going to tear his head off and shit down his neck.”

According to the affidavit, Hammond threated to kill refuge manager Forrest Cameron and assistant manager Dan Walsworth and claimed he was ready to die over a fence line that the refuge wanted to construct to keep his cows out of a marsh and wetland.

The tensions between the Hammond family and the government started when the refuge, which was established as a haven for migrating birds, refused to renew a grazing permit for Hammond’s cattle operation. Then came the incident over the wetland, which Hammond had been using as a water hole for his cows.

On August 3, 1994, a Fish and Wildlife Service crew turned up to complete the task of fencing off the marsh. They found the fence destroyed and a monkey-wrenched earthmover parked in the middle of the marsh. While the feds were waiting on a towing service to remove the Cat, Hammond’s son Steve showed up and began calling the government men “worthless cocksuckers” and “assholes.” Hammond then arrived at the scene, according to the government’s documents, and tried to disrupt the removal of the equipment. The rancher was arrested.

Susan Hammond said nine federal agents, five of them armed, took her husband into custody. “There five guns there, at least five guns there, and not one of them belonged to us,” she said. “We have been sitting and stewing and trying to figure something out. Trying to find out how something like this could happen in America.”

After Hammond’s arrest, Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association, and a key organizer for the property rights movement in the West, said he helped stage a demonstration in Hammond’s defense in Burns. Refuge manager Cameron’s daughter attended the meeting. “She got up at our meeting,” Cushman told me. “She said she was tired of people vilifying her father. And I thought it was just wonderful. I got up and applauded her. She had the guts to do it. Too bad he didn’t have the guts to do the same thing.”

It was after that fateful gathering, while Cameron himself was 300 miles away in Portland completing the paperwork on Hammond’s arrest, that his family began receiving more threats, including one call threatening to wrap the Camerons’ 12-year-old boy in a shroud of barbed wire and stuff him down a well. Other callers warned Mrs. Cameron that if she couldn’t get along in the cow town, she ought to move out before something “bad” happened to her family. The families of three other refuge employees also received telephone threats after the meeting. Terrified, Mrs. Cameron packed up her four children, one of them confined to a wheelchair, and fled to Bend, more than 100 miles to the west.

Cushman later acknowledged that he may have “unintentionally” been a cause of these threats. Angered at the way the feds had arrested Hammond, the property rights organizer told me: “I went to the phone book and I picked out the names of all these guys and I wrote their phone numbers down. And I printed a sheet which I handed out to all the ranchers.  ‘Here are the names of the guys who went on that property. What I want you to do is everywhere these guys go in the community, when they go to the grocery store, when they go to the barbershop, look ‘em right in the eye and tell them: You’re not being a good neighbor. You’re not being friendly.’”

But, Cushman claimed, he also told Hammond’s supporters: “Do not harass these people. I said it right at the meeting and I said it in the document. If Cameron’s right, some people used that document and phoned them and made threats. I am very sorry that happened.”

Cushman nevertheless remained committed to keeping the pressure on federal wildlife agents. “I will make them responsible. Their names—no matter where they go or where they work—those people will know when they get there who they have to deal with. They will be a pariah for the rest of their lives. So the next time they will go to the county sheriff if they want to arrest a man and not the federal cops. They will take him to a local jail. They will not put the man in leg irons. They won’t treat them like vicious criminals.”

A year passed since Hammond’s arrest. The rancher  and his son both denied the government’s charges. No trial had taken place. In fact, after some rather questionable contacts between former Oregon congressman Bob Smith (a Republican) and the Clinton Justice Department, the government inexplicably reduced its original felony charges to misdemeanors.

“This whole thing has gone on longer than the O.J. trial,” Cameron told me. “But this case won’t resolve anything. There’s something deeper going on here, associated with the county movement. Until that’s resolved our position is going to remain pretty much the same.”

While the case was pending, Cameron and the other three employees at the wildlife refuge continued to be on the receiving end of threats from local ranchers and their allies. Shops in Burns began displaying signs warning, “This establishment doesn’t serve federal employees.” Two Harney County commissioners were recalled by voters angry that the county didn’t intervene against the wildlife refuge managers on behalf of the Hammonds and because the commissioners didn’t put the county supremacy ordinance up for a vote.

“We had an equally strange situation on the west side of the refuge,” said refuge manager Forest Cameron. “It was a place where cows would wander down off of BLM lands and onto the road at night. We’d had quite a few cow and car collisions. So we decided to put up a fence. You can’t just let cows lie down to sleep in the middle of a public highway in the middle of the night. That’s got to change. And there was fierce resistance to it, even though we worked closely with a lot of the local ranchers, relocated their corrals and the like. So we put up five miles of fence and then one night somebody hotwired one of the BLM backhoes and knocked down every foot of fence, tore up every fence post and demolished the backhoe. The point is that the harassment and intimidation continues in an open and confrontational way. In fact, it is branching out. Many of us feel that the legal process hasn’t moved swiftly or aggressively enough. We’ve been hanging in a kind of limbo. Maybe things will eventually work out. But right now all of us live in a state of anxiety. And you really worry about your kids.”

As for being a federal wildlife official in the West these days, Cameron chuckled darkly and said, “Well, it’s about learning to keep your head down.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Village Voice.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch and author of Born Under a Bad Sky. James Ridgeway is a journalist living in Washington, DC.

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