Mark Wilson: Political posturing while District 1 burns
During fire season, who would celebrate the early release from prison of men convicted by a jury of their peers for deliberately committing arson that threatened the lives of family members, hunters, and firefighters?
That would be our congressman, Doug LaMalfa.
The congressman recently celebrated Mr. Trump’s pardon of Dwight and Steven Hammond, claiming they were convicted on “charges that could be seen as questionable to begin with” and characterizing their conviction as “a prime example of the previous administration’s overbearing regulation and enforcement on public lands.”
Could this be the case? Let’s look at the facts that came out at the trial.
As early as 1999, Steven Hammond had been caught burning Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land without permission from the BLM, in violation of their grazing lease, and was reprimanded. In 2001, the Hammonds were seen illegally shooting deer on public land. A hunting guide who saw the incident testified that his party later needed to abandon their camp because a fire had started in the area where the deer were shot. He also testified that the fire was burning hours before Steven Hammond called BLM to claim he was about to conduct a burn in that area.
A teenage relative of the Hammonds at the scene testified that Steven Hammond told him to drop lit matches on the ground to “light up the whole country on fire.” When he did, the boy said he was “almost burned up in the fire” and was forced to shelter in a creek. Later, Dwight and Steven told him to “keep his mouth shut.” It’s clear the fire was not a controlled burn to manage their grazing fields, but arson to cover up their illegal hunting.
In summer 2006, Steven Hammond was again caught committing arson. BLM firefighters were battling several fires, and the county Fire Marshal imposed a burn ban and “red flag” warning, indicating strong conditions for wildfire spread. Ignoring the ban, and knowing that firefighters were nearby, Steven Hammond set fires at night without informing anyone in the area, and the firefighters were forced to move to a safer location. The next day, without apology, Hammond admitted he had set the fires. He also threatened to frame a BLM employee if BLM didn’t drop the issue, telling him that “if I go down, you’re going down with me.”
Both men were convicted of arson by a jury. Their attorney struck a deal to drop charges of endangering firefighters and have them sentenced just for the arson. The Hammonds confirmed they knew the sentence would be a five-year minimum mandated by law. However, the judge sentenced them to less than five years. The prosecution appealed, and the appeals court enforced the mandatory five-year sentence. The U.S. Attorney allowed them to self-surrender after the holidays, and they returned to prison to finish their sentences.
So given that set of facts, how could one conclude that the Hammonds were treated unfairly? They had been warned not to set fires on public lands without permission of their leaseholder, yet they continued to do so, and did it under false pretenses. They lied to and threatened federal officials. They endangered human life and property through their reckless and deliberate actions.
When faced with further convictions, they accepted a deal they knew mandated a five-year sentence. Despite this, they were allowed to remain free until their sentencing. Most people whose property has been threatened by wildfire would conclude that the two men’s treatment was more than just.
In our congressional district, where 7.5 million acres is owned by the federal government, all the communities that border that land should be having ongoing, open, productive discussions with the federal government on how to use and manage it. The district’s congressional representative should be the ideal person to facilitate that discussion, but Mr. LaMalfa has proven himself incapable of that task.
By lauding these convicted arsonists while criticizing the efforts of our government and citizen jurors to hold them to account for their unlawful, dangerous actions, he demonstrates his contempt for the rule of law and equal treatment under the law. He also shows that he values ideological posturing over the conversations, collaborations, compromises, and hard work it takes to resolve these issues.
His casual, irresponsible attitude toward these arsonists also sends a dangerous message to those who feel justified in taking the law into their own hands, leaving the rest of us to suffer the consequences.
Mark Wilson lives in Nevada City.
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