Trial opened Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Pendleton, for two Harney County ranchers charged with deliberately setting fires on federal grazing land between 2001 and 2006.
Steven Hammond and his father, Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr., of Hammond Ranch near Frenchglen were admonished in 1999 by a federal range manager about carelessly setting fires to improve grazing conditions, according to U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni Jr. of Eugene.
“That’s 1999,” Papagni told jurors in his opening statement. “That sets the stage for why you folks are here.”
Two years later, Papagni alleged, the Hammonds set a fire to scare away deer hunters. Finally, in August 2006, the father and son set an illegal burn that threatened to overrun a BLM brush engine and its crew, the prosecutor explained.
Firefighter Lance Okeson confronted Dwight Hammond at the scene: “Don’t be doing this; you’re lighting us in,” Papagni told jurors.
A federal indictment charges the pair with nine counts, including conspiracy and setting illegal fires on federal grazing land, fires that coincided or contributed to the Hardie Hammond, Lower Bridge Creek and Krumbo Butte fires.
One count alleges witness tampering, a charge Papagni said stems from a confrontation in Frenchglen between Steve Hammond and Joe Glascock, a rangeland conservation manager who suspected the Hammonds of setting rangeland fires. Hammond in 2006 told Glascock: “This could get ugly, and this could be a sticky situation,” the prosecutor told jurors. “You set those fires, not me.”
Papagni said witnesses would testify that the Hammonds admitted setting fires. Dusty Hammond, Dwight’s grandson, described for the government how at age 13 he helped his grandfather and uncle set fires using strike-anywhere matches, Papagni told jurors.
Defense lawyers in turns explaining that the government built its case on suspicion and error. Lightning in most cases caused the fires the government claims the Hammonds set, said Steven Hammond’s attorney, Lawrence Matasar of Portland. Hammond cattle were endangered by some fires and the Hammonds’ presence is explained by their need to move their cattle out harm’s way, said attorney Marc Blackman of Portland, representing Dwight Hammond.
“What it means is that there’s cattle ranching going on there,” Matasar told jurors. “That’s the main thing you need to understand.”
In one case, the Hammonds were at home entertaining guests from Nevada when witnesses put them at a fire scene, said Blackman. For the jury he displayed Hammond family photographs, including one with a digital clock displaying the date and time in the background.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene presides in the John F. Kilkenny U.S. Post Office and Courthouse. Tuesday morning, Hogan seated 12 jurors — seven men and five women — and two alternates. Among the jurors are a La Grande floral designer, a guitar instructor from Pendleton, a master electrician from Milton-Freewater who works for the state Department of Corrections and a service writer for a mechanic’s shop in Prineville. The trial may last three weeks.
Contact City Editor Joseph Ditzler at email@example.com or 541-966-0828.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.