In the course of the spring of 1995, soon enough after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I put in a few weeks researching for a series of reports in the Village Voice that chronicled the increase of militant rightwing movements of militias, white supremacists, Christian Identity sects and anti-government organizations, which include a profile of central Oregon rancher Dwight Hammond, currently at the core of the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in the vicinity of Burns.
In the early 1990s, Hammond oftentimes transgressed federal environmental laws, trespassed on federal lands and hurled death threats at federal wildlife representatives. Little action was undertaken against Hammond by a shy Clinton administration. Emboldened, Hammond and some of his associate ranchers went on over the next 2 decades to flagrantly flout environmental laws and harass federal representatives. These functions finally ended in an act of poaching on Steens Mountain and 2 arson fires. Hammond and his son were found guilty in federal court and sentenced to 5 years in prison. That indictment resulted in the armed takeover of federal buildings currently unfolding in Burns. Here is the report from 1995.
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 wanted 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 sworn statement, Earl M. Kisler, a Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer, stated that rancher Dwight Hammond had repeatedly threatened refuge representatives with violence over an eight year period. On one event Hammond told the manager of the federal refuge that “he was going to tear his head off and shit down his neck.”
Consistent with the sworn statement, Hammond threatened 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 build to keep his cows out of a marsh and wetland.
The concerns between the Hammond family and the government began when the refuge, which was set up as a haven for migrating birds, refused to renew a grazing permit for Hammond’s cattle operation. Then came the event over the wetland, which Hammond had been making use of as a water hole for his cows.
On August 3, 1994, a Fish and Wildlife Service crew turned up to finish the task of fencing off the marsh. They discovered the fence ruined 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 started calling the government men “worthless cocksuckers” and “assholes.” Hammond then showed up at the scene, based on the government’s documents, and attempted to interrupt the taking away of the equipment. The rancher was arrested.
Susan Hammond reported nine federal agents, 5 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 stated. “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, explained he helped stage a demonstration in Hammond’s defense in Burns. Refuge manager Cameron’s daughter joined in 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 get together, while Cameron himself was 300 miles away in Portland finishing the paperwork on Hammond’s arrest, that his family started getting more threats, which included 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 cautioned Mrs. Cameron that if she couldn’t get along in the cow town, she should move out before something “bad” happened to her family. The families of three other refuge employees also got telephone threats after the meeting. Terrified, Mrs. Cameron packed up her 4 children, one of them confined to a wheelchair, and fled to Bend, more than 100 miles to the west.
Cushman later accepted 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 however 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.