President Barack Obama has less than 10 days remaining in his eight-year tenure, but that’s plenty of time to make a couple of decisions that would burnish his legacy among many Eastern Oregonians.
We hope Mr. Obama will grant clemency to Harney County ranchers Dwight and Stephen Hammond, and decline to designate a national monument in the Owyhee country of Malheur County.
The Hammonds’ situation — Dwight’s the father, Stephen his son — was unfortunately submerged by the flood of publicity that followed the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January.
But their case for clemency is at least as compelling as that for some of the drug offenders whom Mr. Obama has released from prison because he believes the mandatory minimum sentences for their crimes are unfair.
The Hammonds, who were convicted in 2012 of lighting a fire in 2006 that burned 139 acres of public land near their ranch, were originally sentenced to prison sentences of six months for Dwight, and one year for Stephen.
Attorneys for the federal government appealed, pointing out — accurately — that the crime for which the Hammonds were convicted carries a mandatory five-year prison term.
But that crime, which was passed during the Clinton administration, was intended to punish terrorists. The Hammonds are not terrorists. Both have been in federal prison for the past year, and that’s a reasonable punishment for their crime.
We’re not alone in our assessment.
Oregon’s U.S. senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic congressman from the Portland area, signed a letter this week to Mr. Obama asking him consider commuting prison sentences for “the many Oregonians who are currently serving mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses in federal prison that are disproportionate to the crimes that they committed.”
Although the lawmakers’ letter doesn’t name any inmates, Hank Stern, a spokesman for Wyden, told us the Hammonds are among the Oregonians whose sentences the senators object to.
As for the Owyhee country, there is an alternative to the president unilaterally creating a monument, and it’s an option that would avoid the greatest risk to one of Eastern Oregon’s great scenic treasures.
That alternative was proposed last summer by Wyden and Merkley. They introduced a bill that would ban new mining operations, as well as oil and gas drilling, in the Owyhee.
This approach is the legislative scalpel to the sledgehammer that is a national monument designation.
Although monument proponents, led by Keen Footwear and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, insist that creating an Owyhee monument would not restrict cattle ranching or motorized recreation, there’s no guarantee that changing the designation of more than 2 million acres wouldn’t hamper those and other longtime uses of that area.
It’s hardly surprising that surveys of Malheur County residents show that the vast majority oppose a monument designation.
Wyden and Merkley’s bill, which did not advance in the 2016 Congress, possibly because lawmakers are awaiting the president’s decision on a monument, would have no effect on current uses. Rather, the bill would block oil and gas drilling, which aren’t happening there now but which could potentially affect not only the Owyhee’s scenery, flora and fauna — which is the main concern of the monument promoters — but also ranching and recreation.
In effect, the senators have given Mr. Obama an elegant solution to the Owyhee question. By endorsing their bill but declining to create a monument he can help to protect a swath of public land, without alienating thousands of the people who spend more time there than any other group.