SALEM, Ore. — Father and son ranchers, who were the focus of a battle about public lands and were freed from prison after receiving a presidential pardon, were welcomed home Wednesday in Oregon by relatives and horseback riders carrying American flags.
"We're going to do a lot of decompressing and get back to our families," Steven Hammond told reporters and well-wishers after he and his father Dwight stepped from a private jet and into the arms of family members in the high-desert town of Burns.
Just 25 miles (40 kilometers) away is Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was taken over in 2016 by armed protesters angered by the five-year prison sentences given to the Hammonds after they were convicted of setting fires on federal land.
The standoff lasted 41 days, ending when occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy were arrested and LaVoy Finicum was killed by authorities.
The occupiers, who believe federal control of public lands violates the Constitution, insisted the Hammonds were victimized by federal overreach.
Steven Hammond gave thanks Wednesday to President Donald Trump and the many people who wrote to him and his father while they were in prison.
"We received thousands of letters. There's a time you get to that point where a letter means a lot," Steven Hammond said, his voice choking up in video posted on Twitter by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Some environmentalists see a pattern in the way Trump is approaching public lands, which comprise almost half of the U.S. West, and have linked the pardons to his position.
Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the administration has shrunk the size of protected national monuments in Utah and is considering reductions of other sites.
"Special interests are working with the Trump administration to dismantle America's public lands heritage, and this will be viewed as a victory in that effort," spokesman Arran Robertson of the environmental group Oregon Wild said about the pardons.
Witnesses testified that a 2001 arson fire occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered deer on federal Bureau of Land Management property. The fire burned 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations, the U.S. attorney's office said.
The jury also convicted Steven Hammond for a 2006 blaze that prosecutors said began when he started several back fires, violating a burn ban, to save his winter feed after lightning started numerous fires nearby.
Federal anti-terrorism law called for mandatory five-year sentences for the 2012 convictions. A federal judge said such a long sentence would shock his conscience and instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven Hammond to a year and one day.
A federal appeals court in October 2015 ordered them to be resentenced to the mandatory prison time, and the two went back to prison, sparking the occupation of the federal wildlife refuge.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, a well-known figure in the battle over public land and father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, welcomed the pardons, saying the Hammonds were victims of federal overreach.
"Now we've finally got a president of the United States who is paying attention to what is going on," Bundy said.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the group Defenders of Wildlife, countered that the Hammonds were convicted of arson, a serious crime.
"Whatever prompted President Trump to pardon them, we hope that it is not seen as an encouragement to those who might use violence to seize federal property and threaten federal employees in the West," Clark said.