My Take on the Eastern Oregon Situation
All eyes are on eastern Oregon as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues to be occupied by armed militants. This situation raises three important, but distinct, issues: 1) the tolerance of armed insurrection and sedition when one disagrees with policies of the government; 2) the appropriate use and value of public land; and 3) whether or not our current criminal sentencing guidelines make sense.
Some have tried to confuse these issues for their own purposes. Others, because these are complex issues, are focused on one issue instead of looking at all three as a whole. I want to explain my position on each of these areas and how they apply in this case.
Condemnation of occupation of a federal facility is a no-brainer
Everyone in this country — and everyone who has taken an oath of office to the United States — should be appalled and strongly condemning the occupation of a federal facility by a few jackpots who feel they know better than all three branches of government and the people of Harney County.
While it’s true our country was founded as part of a revolution, it was a revolution against a foreign monarchy that was broad-based and supported the goals of a new and more inclusive government. This occupation involves a small group of militants — I would call them terrorists — who decided using threats of violence will somehow change federal law instead of using the democratic process that was created out of our Revolutionary War. One cannot help but wonder what the response would be if members of the Black Lives Matter movement took over a government building with firearms.
This morning, I discussed this situation with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a federal facility on federal land. Armed thugs occupying the refuge and calling for more people to join them is dangerous. This is unacceptable and poses a serious threat to the public and federal employees who serve them. Public lands belong to all Americans. We need a deliberate response by law enforcement to not allow this situation to get out of hand. We don’t want martyrs. We want those involved to be fairly prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Public lands provide important economic, recreational, and ecological value
The second issue at play, and one which is a legitimate point of debate, is whether public land should be turned over to private interests. For over a century, the American people have supported keeping appropriate lands for a variety of public use — land is held for parks, to preserve wilderness, used as part of natural resource economies, and for agricultural purposes such as grazing lands.
Lost in the current controversy is the tremendous subsidy some ranchers get for grazing on public lands. Bureau of Land Management grazing fees are less than 10 percent of what ranchers pay to graze on private lands. The rate is so low it doesn’t even cover the agency’s costs to administer the grazing program. Should these public lands be sold and returned to private entities, only those who can afford them will be able to use them.
I strongly support public protection of many our most treasured areas, such as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that was first protected by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. This place is an important habitat for migratory birds and is treasured by birders from across the world, who were among the nearly 24,000 people who visited the Refuge in 2014. More than 320 different migratory species have been recorded at this refuge and more than 130 nest there. Whether it’s for recreational activities and wildlife habitat protection as this Refuge provides, or whether it’s for carbon storage, or simply taking in the beauty of our landscape, our national forests, recreation areas, parks, wildlife refuges, and monuments provide great economic, recreational, and ecological value to our society and improve our quality of life. We have a responsibility to continue to protect areas like this, and hold them in the public trust, for our constituents and for future generations.
Mandatory minimum sentences are inappropriate
The final issue at play in this situation is one where I actually agree with those supporting the Hammond family — and that’s whether or not Congress should set mandatory minimum sentences for criminal activity. There is no doubt that Dwight and Steven Hammond have been found guilty by a jury of their peers after a trial with testimony from a fellow family member who said they committed the crimes in question. However, the federal judge who listened to the evidence and presided over their trial believed the mandatory minimum sentence that Congress legally passed was inappropriate.
I think mandatory minimum sentences are in and of themselves inappropriate. We should be setting guidelines and allowing our impartial judges who listen to cases and evidence set appropriate punishments. Our criminal justice system should not be a “one size fits all” approach with sentencing on auto pilot.
There are people who disagree with me on policy issues, but who understand and argue against mandatory minimum sentences. I’ve worked for decades on criminal justice reform, and in particular drug policy reform. There we have seen mandatory minimums are discriminatory in nature and serve no public purpose.
What Americans stand to gain
This situation can be used to bring positive change for the American people. It is important that those responsible for seizing this federal facility be prosecuted. We must send the message that this type of behavior is illegal, unacceptable, and un-American. It will hopefully prevent future similar occurrences.
I also hope this event spurs a greater appreciation and understanding of public lands across the country and how we all benefit from them.
Finally, I hope we can have a thoughtful conversation about criminal justice reform that brings together people from across the political spectrum to put some rationality behind our criminal sentencing guidelines.