BURNS — Three-and-a-half hours after pardoned Oregon rancher Dwight Hammond Jr. arrived home, he gathered with his wife and sons around his dining room’s large circular table and got back to business.
They hooked him into a live feed of an auction in Nevada where Hammond Ranch Inc.’s 155 calves were on the block.
Hammond could have called in to participate in the annual sale but he held back, not wanting to jerk the reins from his daughter-in-law and others who have run the family’s cattle ranch while he and his son Steven served arson sentences in federal prison.
“We’ve had to trust them. No use to question their judgment now,” the 76-year-old said later, sitting in his living room, back in his trademark Wrangler jeans, brown cowboy boots and a blue button-down shirt that matched his eyes.
In his first wide-ranging interview since his release, the veteran rancher talked about how he coped in prison, how he learned of his pardon by President Trump and the shock of his sudden release. He addressed the impact of the Bundys and their followers converging on Harney County and spoke about what he plans to do in the future.
He emerged from Terminal Island in Southern California with a new perspective on the conflicts between Western ranchers and federal regulators.
“I have had the opportunity to have a lot of time resting and relaxing while I’m being sheltered and fed to realize that a lot of my life has been misdirected,” he said.
While he’s spent decades at loggerheads with officials of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Hammond said he realized his focus should have been elsewhere. He believes a deeper problem threatens the country.
He now intends to wade into another century-old debate: the place of religion in schools. He’s firmly on the side of allowing prayer and religious sentiment in the classroom.
“As I said for a long time, this is not about me. This is not about our industry. It’s about America and it’s about our youth,” he said.
“We don’t stand a snowball’s chance on a slow roll through hell of getting out of this situation until we are willing to let God lead us.”
But the conservative cattleman’s main priority hasn’t changed: working to restore his ranch’s grazing permit to keep the family operation viable.
He maintains his belief that the “feds,” as he calls them, rule by fear. He holds disdain for the management of the wildlife refuge and rangeland surrounding his more than 12,000 acres of land in the Diamond valley of Steens Mountain.
Hammond never sought the intense spotlight that fell on him once Ammon and Ryan Bundy, militia members and other right-wing supporters descended on his dusty high desert town 2 1/2 years ago.
He and his youngest son Steven became the rallying cry for the activists who marched to his home days before the two were scheduled to surrender to prison on Jan. 4, 2016, to complete mandatory minimum five-year sentences.
Hammond said he was overwhelmed by having to leave his family again, and the Bundys’ presence in town magnified that feeling. He tried to distance himself from them and concentrate on turning himself into prison despite their urgings to the contrary.
“I tried to do the right thing,” he said.
Hammond said he never supported the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“No, I do not condone that, but I have giant sympathy for the frustrations that they have felt,” he said, referring to patriarch rancher Cliven Bundy’s own battles over grazing cattle with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.
Hammond felt the successful challenge by federal prosecutors of his initial three-month sentence was unjust, particularly after he and his son had waived their right to appeal. He had been convicted of a 2001 fire that spread to public land.
Prosecutors argued that the trial judge violated the law by ignoring the minimum mandatory sentence for arson under a wide-ranging anti-terrorism statute. They said the fire was to cover up deer poaching and got out of control, placing firefighters who had to be airlifted out of the area in grave danger. Their pursuit of the Hammonds, they said, followed years of permit violations and unauthorized fires and that the father and son never accepted responsibility.
Chris Gardner, a board member of the volunteer Friends of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge group, said the Hammonds had “a long history of contentious and aggressive behavior toward the staff of the refuge.”
“These public servants, while working to accomplish their primary mission to protect wildlife that rely on the refuge, have also succeeded in reaching win/win cooperative agreements with most neighboring ranchers,” Gardner said in a statement. “Refuge personnel while trying to work with the Hammonds never threatened them or their children, never destroyed their property, and never set dangerous unauthorized fires which put firefighters at risk, which are all behaviors government employees have stated they have had to endure.”
The elder Hammond doesn’t believe what he did warranted such harsh punishment. Steven Hammond declined to comment.
Dwight Hammond wrote from prison for his clemency petition: “I am over 1,000 miles away because of a slop-over fire that happened in 2001; for a fire for which the government did not even issue a trespass notice in 2001; for a fire that BLM agreed improved the land.”
When he arrived at prison, his name was often on the TV news.
By the end of the month, he learned from a TV news report about the fatal shooting of occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum. Two state troopers shot Finicum after he sped off from a police stop and then swerved his truck into a snowbank to avoid a roadblock on U.S. 395. Finicum was shot as he reached inside his jacket where he had a gun, according to investigators.
Hammond said at that moment he was thankful to be in custody. He thought the same thing could have happened to him.
“I was grateful for my iron bars on my window keeping the bad guys out there,” he said.
Hammond established a routine in prison.
He shared a bunk with Steven Hammond, 49. He woke at 5 a.m. each weekday so he could tune into radio station 105.1 to listen to its 6 a.m. rendition of the national anthem. He was upset that the station didn’t air the anthem on weekends.
“That’s how I liked to start my day. It helped clear out some of my thoughts that I allowed to creep in with the lights out. It cleared out the cobwebs,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “I was able to say a prayer after listening to that and start my day out as appropriately as I could.”
He’d walk in the prison yard, read history books and nap to pass the time. He read the biography of Louis Zamperini, the World War II prisoner, Christian evangelist and Olympic distance runner, and “A Higher Call” about a badly damaged American bomber piloted by a 21-year-old flying over wartime Germany.
From the beginning, other inmates learned of his ranching history, having read or seen media reports about his expansive land holdings. One inmate was indignant, complaining that all he’d need was one acre for a successful pot-growing operation. Hammond said he smiled and walked off.
He didn’t bother to share what he was thinking: “We have more than 10,000 acres and it isn’t enough. We go out and rent other pastures to try to make a damn living.”
Each day, the inmates had to walk through an outside yard to get to the chow hall from their bunks. The first time he walked into the yard, he came upon an unexpected sight in a prison setting: roses.
“I’m thinking, wondering how in the hell I ended up here,” Hammond said. “And then, I’d go by and smell the roses to try to calm my nerves using my only therapeutic potion available. I’d wander by nice and slow to smell the roses.”
Slowing to smell the roses, he realized, was something he had failed to do most of his life.
While other inmates spoke longingly of what they missed, talking of a fat salmon they caught or of a guided hunting trip in Siberia, Hammond recognized he’d spent most of his life hauling cattle or gathering up hay, often working Sundays, when he could have taken his wife and sons to pray.
“So here we are doing what has to be done to stay alive and not going to church,” he said.
He’s vowed to change that focus. As a reminder, he sent rose petals pressed between prison toilet paper to family in the mail and brought some home as mementos.
Hammond was especially grateful for the thousands of letters of support he received in prison, visits from relatives, particularly on holidays, and calls. Many inmates, he noticed, never got any of those things.
Hammond knew people were working on his behalf for clemency. One was oil magnate Forrest Lucas, who had reached out to him just before his return to prison.
He didn’t learn of the pardon until other inmates started congratulating him Tuesday morning, seeing it on TV. At first he heard it might take two weeks for his release but by the time he got back to his bunk, correction officers told him to pack up.
“They were waiting there impatiently to escort me out,” he said.
He and his son gathered their belongings in a cardboard box as the guards stood by. Rattled by the suddenness of it all, he left his reading glasses behind. The two were free 6 1/2 hours later, still in their prison khakis.
It’s all still difficult to take in, said Hammond, who came home 35 pounds trimmer and feels good.
“Ever see a mouse loose in the house?” he asked. “He has no idea what to do. He scurries here and scurries there.”
That’s how it’s felt for him.
“You have no idea what to do and someone will grab you and sit you down and want to talk to you,” he said. “For lack of being able to do anything more productive, you sit and talk to them. It’s such an overwhelming experience.”
He’s disappointed he can’t thank each one of his supporters, many he doesn’t even know.
While talking to a reporter, he got a visit from refuge occupier Shawna Cox, who was a passenger in Finicum’s truck when he was shot. “I have to hug you. We prayed a lot for you,” she told him as he stood up and she embraced him. Afterward, he turned back and shrugged his shoulders, wondering who she was.
“He probably doesn’t know who you are, Shawna,” his wife, Susie Hammond, explained.
Family friend Ruthie Danielson pledged to fill him in on all the people who helped. Lucas, a multimillionaire and friend of Vice President Mike Pence, was instrumental, along with his nonprofit advocacy group Protect the Harvest and its national strategic manager Dave Duquette of Hermiston.
“It’s all about who you know and all the money behind it,” Danielson said. “It’s unfortunate, but we’ll take it.”
Utah lawyer Morgan Philpot greeted the Hammonds on the tarmac of Burns Municipal Airport when Lucas flew father and son home from California on Wednesday. Philpot had represented Ammon Bundy in Oregon where he was acquitted of all charges in the refuge occupation, and in Nevada, where a judge dismissed a conspiracy case for prosecutorial misconduct.
Susie Hammond reached out to Philpot to represent her. “I have respect for winners,” she said.
Now, Hammond said, he wants to lobby school boards about his belief that God belongs in public schools – a position federal courts have consistently found violates the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the so-called Establishment Clause forbids school-sponsored prayer or religious indoctrination. Over 30 years ago, the court struck down classroom prayer and scripture readings even where they were voluntary.
“I haven’t lost my momentum,” Hammond said. “But I’ve gotten past fighting.”
“It doesn’t sound like it,” his wife chimed in as she sat on a recliner nearby stroking a Siamese kitten she recently received from a litter found at the refuge. She calls her “Liberty.”
Asked what his short-term plans are, he said wryly, “Waiting for a multitude of friends and family to get the hell out of here so I can be alone with my wife. … We’re not capping off 57 years. We’re just barely getting started on our life hereafter.”
When he entered Terminal Island, he worried he wouldn’t survive to complete his term.
Now, he sees “terminal” as something else. It’s a reminder of the place where he found renewed purpose. He has lived to appreciate another day, another cause.
“Terminal no longer to me means the end,” he said.