In late November 2015, a man wearing a cowboy hat and clutching a pocket-sized Constitution stood before TV cameras to ask the world to aid two Harney County ranchers.
“The Hammonds need your help,” Ammon Bundy said.
Dwight and Steven Hammond were slated to return to prison on charges of arson on federal land after a judge threw out their initial sentences as too lenient. Bundy and his followers wanted them to refuse to turn themselves in — and ended up seizing control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a 41-day takeover that drew national and international attention.
After the Hammonds turned themselves in, the tone of the occupation shifted away from the family and toward complaints about federal government overreach. The Hammonds did get a presidential pardon, but that was just this month, and many in Harney County wonder if the occupation ended up doing the ranchers more harm than good.
“I think they used the Hammonds’ name to come here. They were looking for a circumstance to raise the dickens,” Harney County rancher Scott Franklin said recently while working in heat of the vast high desert. “… They put the Hammonds in the tough spot. I’m sure there was that thought that you can’t reward the Hammonds with the pardon and early release and have those militia think that they did it, because my gosh, what other places would they go and raise hell?”
Days after the Hammonds were pardoned, occupation leaders and their supporters returned to Burns for a public celebration. Not everyone welcomed them.
“I just never wanted those people to come back to Harney County again,” Franklin said. “We don’t need them here.”
Among the celebrants this month was Pete Santilli, a conservative internet talk show host who gained prominence during the 2016 occupation.
“We’re reuniting and celebrating reuniting an American family,” Santilli told a crowd in Burns and on social media during a post-pardon rally. “Thank you, President Trump.”
Occupation supporter Brand Thornton also came back to celebrate. He told documentary filmmakers Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm that the pardons sent a powerful message: that the occupation worked.
“So now we get the presidential pardons, which really underscores everything that we’ve done and shows that we were always on the right side,” Thornton said. “And so it’s extremely gratifying.”
Some Harney County leaders disagree with that interpretation.
“In order to justify their own actions, they have to get people to think that they have credit for the pardons,” said Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, who was the public face of law enforcement during the occupation. “The fact is they deserve no credit.”
Ward said he’s glad that the Hammonds are home. Like many in the community, he wrote the U.S. Department of Justice to support having the Hammonds’ sentence commuted.
“The Hammonds were released because a lawful system was followed,” Ward said. “They probably sat in jail longer because people came in and did a hostile takeover in a small community, broke the laws and waved the guns around.”
For many in Harney County, Trump’s pardon of the Hammonds closes the book on the occupation and a debate that strained and divided the community.
Former county judge Steve Grasty was the county’s top elected official during the occupation. On a recent evening, he sat on the porch of his house as the sun set over acres of sage brush.
“I’m pretty happy to see this saga in our community end,” he said. “I think the Hammonds coming home, out of prison, all of that over, helps that saga end.”
Grasty said there’s more to talk about in Harney County than the occupation. Enrollment is up at local schools. More business are moving into the industrial park. And there’s a newly renovated hotel open in Burns.
“I want to see this community truly vital and self-sustainable,” he said. “Guys like the occupation and all their guns they brought didn’t do anything to help that.”