Guest Opinions

Raul Labrador: Oregon standoff puts public lands, sentencing reform concerns in national spotlight

A Dont Tread On Me flag flies at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, near Burns, Ore. A small, armed group has been occupying the remote national wildlife refuge in Oregon for a week to protest federal land use policies.
A Dont Tread On Me flag flies at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, near Burns, Ore. A small, armed group has been occupying the remote national wildlife refuge in Oregon for a week to protest federal land use policies. AP

It’s not every day that two unrelated issues I care passionately about can be discussed in one Op-Ed. But last week, the issues of land management in the West and federal sentencing reform were central to the events in eastern Oregon. The standoff in Harney County has become a big story, landing on the front page of The New York Times and filling the cable news programs.

I have called the protesters’ actions civil disobedience. Some have objected to this characterization, but I will leave it to Henry David Thoreau and the other great philosophers throughout history to have this debate, not to the liberal hacks of the Idaho and Washington media. At least we should agree that the protesters should leave the federal property peacefully and will have to face the consequences of their actions. I hope and pray that the protesters and law enforcement quickly reach a peaceful conclusion.

But when the dust settles, important lessons must follow. Westerners are well aware that onerous federal land management has stripped hardworking Americans of the ability to profit from the fruits of their labor. But because of the injustice that sparked the standoff — the outrageous five-year federal prison sentences for two fires that burned 140 acres of federal land — the rest of the country is starting to learn more about this issue.

Some liberals have demonized the protesters, calling them “domestic terrorists,” “Y’all Qaida,” “YokelHaram” and “Vanilla ISIS.” Sadly, such demeaning talk makes it easy for the elite media and liberals to ignore the wrongs underlying the protests.

At a town meeting in Burns, Ore., Louis Smith told reporters that he was pleased the media are finally paying attention to the plight of rural America. “These guys, I hate to say it, they’ve woke every one of you guys up,” said Smith, whose ancestors homesteaded near the site of the protest, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Every day of their working lives, families like those of the two men convicted — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven — feel the heavy hand of burdensome laws and regulations enforced by detached bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

Those in the East have a hard time understanding what it’s like out here. In Idaho, 64 percent of the land is in federal hands. In five of the counties in the 1st Congressional District, more than three-quarters of the land is federal, topped by Valley County at 88 percent.

Harney County, where the Hammonds live, is larger than Maryland, and 72 percent of it is owned by the feds. Restrictions on grazing, logging and mining have plagued eastern Oregon, just as they have my district, costing jobs and forcing young people to leave their families and the landscape they love.

Inadequate land management has contributed to devastating wildfires. In 2012, the Miller Homestead Fire burned 160,000 acres in Oregon. Last year, the Soda Fire burned 284,000 acres in Southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon.

The Hammonds admitted they started two small backfires to protect and improve their private grazing land. These fires moved to federal lands. Overzealous federal prosecutors charged them with arson under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and sought the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan refused to impose the five-year sentence, saying to do so would violate the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment. Hogan called such a penalty “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.” Hogan also said, “It would be a sentence that would shock the conscience.”

Hogan sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steven Hammond to one year. They did their time. But the federal government appealed and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that they serve the full five years. Both reported to federal prison last week, prompting a protest march in Burns and the subsequent takeover of refuge headquarters.

When the EPA spilled 3 million gallons of toxic waste into a river from a Colorado mine, no one in the federal government was held accountable. But when a couple of ranchers start a fire on their own lands that moves to federal land, they are prosecuted under an anti-terrorism law.

The good news is the country is now paying attention, and I believe two of the most important initiatives I’ve worked on in Congress could right these wrongs.

The first is shifting control of management of federal lands. I expect momentum to build for my bill to allow local officials to manage up to 2 percent of U.S. Forest Service lands as pilot projects, as well as other reforms to restore public lands to health and productivity.

Second, the Hammond case highlights the need for broad criminal sentencing reform. I am proud to have introduced legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and have worked closely with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle on legislation to further reform criminal sentencing requirements.

Reforming mandatory minimums should not end with drug offenders. Mandatory minimums is not just an urban issue. This incident shows that mandatory minimums have been inappropriately applied to a variety of crimes undeserving of the excessive punishment. I will continue to work on legislation to ensure judges have the power to sentence offenders based on the facts and circumstances of each case.

Millions of Americans are beginning to learn why we Westerners are so frustrated. One day, I hope we’ll look back at the events in Oregon and see them as an important step toward restoring balance in federal land management and criminal sentencing practices.

Raul Labrador represents the 1st District of Idaho in the U.S. House of Representatives.