Two decades before the Oregon Standoff, the Hammonds sparked another conflict in Harney County (video)

This sign isn’t from 2016. It’s from 1994… (CNN)

In early 2016, a family of Harney County ranchers, the Hammonds, were seemingly thrust out of obscurity and into the story of the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Out-of-staters Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy (who had his own standoff in 2014 in Nevada) used local sentiment against the re-sentencing of locals Dwight and Steve Hammond for arson as cover to forcibly occupy the refuge and advance an anti-government and extremist agenda. Ultimately, after 41 days of occupation, dozens were arrested and charged with felonies, militant Lavoy Finicum was killed in a violent confrontation with police, and refuge staff and the public were denied access for months. Numerous threats were made against locals by outside groups, many federal employees were forced to lay low or flee, the interests of First Peoples were again disregarded, and Harney County seems forever changed. Yet 22 years ago, arrests of members of a seemingly obscure Harney County ranching family — again, the Hammonds — attracted widespread attention and sparked the interest of outside anti-government agitators.


A full-page advertisement in an August 1994 Burns-Times Herald, calling citizens to a “Citizen’s Rights Rally” in Burns and featuring Chuck Cushman, founder of “Wise Use” group American Land Rights Association. The names of locals supporting the Hammonds have been redacted, because I have better judgment than Chuck Cushman (see video, below).

Dwight and Steve Hammond were arrested in 1994 for obstructing federal employees attempting to fence the Hammonds’ cattle out of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Chuck Cushman, founder of the American Land Rights Association, was there, touting his anti-government “wise use” ideology. A group of 500 angry people assembled in Burns on August 10, 1994 at the meeting advertised above, and federal employees in Burns received threats. Denzel and Nancy Ferguson, former managers of the Malheur Field Station, recounted the story in this letter to the Oregonian (obtained after initially publishing this piece):

Letter from the Fergusons, former managers of the Malheur Field Station, to the Oregonian in 1994.

Things were hot in the mid-1990s in the intermountain West: the Reno office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was bombed on Halloween 1993, and Guy Pence, a U.S. Forest Service employee, was apparently targeted by two bombs in Carson City in 1995. An attempted bombing of the Reno IRS building, later in 1995. Connections to anti-government groups were widely suspected — by government officials and the media — and there was Chuck Cushman, denying connection to militia movements, and accusing environmentalists of McCarthyism. 22 years later, Cushman was there again with online propaganda during the 2016 Oregon standoff and in media interviews. Shockingly, as pointed out to me by extremism expert J.J. MacNab, Cushman was clearly communicating with the Bundys about the Hammonds before the 2016 occupation. Luckily, both Chuck Cushman and Dwight Hammond’s views were captured by CNN in interviews in 1995.

“I’ve said that I was willing to die — maybe they’re willing to die, I don’t know.”
— Dwight Hammond, 1995

The video below — an excerpt from a 1995 CNN Presents special “Patriots & Profits” — lets Cushman explain himself how he helped spark a campaign against public land-management employees, and we can see the tactics he used to stoke anger among Burns and Harney County residents in support of the Hammonds (and in supplement, see the Burns Times-Herald advertisement above). The Hammonds were often portrayed as neutral in the 2016 occupation — to their credit, they did disavow it — but don’t forget they made threats against refuge staff and against Nancy and Denzel Ferguson (former managers of the Malheur Field Station), and the whole arson bit to cover up poaching or endanger BLM firefighters. Without further editorializing, the excerpt, hosted by Bernard Shaw (who famously torpedoed Dukakis) and David Lewis, includes an interview with Jeffrey St. Clair (who now edits Counterpunch and recounted some of his Hammond history here) and with then-refuge manager Forrest Cameron of the USFWS:

TL:DR? Just spend 9 minutes watching this amazing CNN video.

The Hammonds have thus been a part of at least two conflicts that received national attention — in very different roles. While the Bundys and their co-conspirators are mostly in jail awaiting trial, and the Hammonds are serving prison time for arson, conflicts over public lands in the west will likely continue. The next flash point remains to be seen.


Daniel Barton is an Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, California. He once lived in Burns and is looking forward to seeing Malheur and Harney County again sometime soon. He wrote more extensively about his connection to Malheur here. Any uncredited photos are Daniel Barton (c) 2016, video and screen captures included are reasonably considered “fair use” in an educational / academic setting.

Twitter: @oreothlypis