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Feds file civil suit against ranchers charged with arson

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Oregon pair face 20-year sentence, $250,000 fine


By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI


Capital Press


The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit seeking financial compensation from two Oregon ranchers it has already charged with criminal arson.


The civil complaint claims Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, both of Diamond, Ore., set several blazes on public land that cost the government about $1.3 million in fire suppression and resource damages.


The fires burned through more than 60,000 acres in Eastern Oregon during the summers of 2005 and 2006, primarily on property owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the complaint alleges.


The BLM claims the Hammonds were negligent in failing to prevent, control or suppress the fires and had trespassed on government land, according to the complaint.


The complaint seeks up to three times the cost of fire suppression and other damages caused by the fires, plus interest and penalties.


The government also claims the Hammonds violated their 10-year grazing permit with the BLM and has asked a federal judge to permanently bar them from entering or using any public lands.


In the criminal indictment against the Hammonds, filed in June, 2010, the Hammonds are accused of setting fires on BLM land stretching back to the early 1980s.


In that case, the government contends the Hammonds were frustrated by the length of time it took BLM to complete environmental studies before conducting controlled rangeland burning.


According to the indictment, the Hammonds began setting the fires during dry lightning storms to avoid detection.


Steven Hammond is also charged with tampering with a witness because he allegedly told a BLM employee to drop the arson investigation, the indictment said.


The Hammonds face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted of the criminal charges.


Capital Press was unable to reach attorneys representing the Hammonds as of press time.


A 13-day jury trial in the criminal case is scheduled to take place in Eugene, Ore., in October, though the judge overseeing the case is considering moving it to Burns, Ore., according to court documents.


Attorneys for the Hammonds had previously requested that the trial be held in Pendleton because it's more convenient than Eugene and because "the defendants are Eastern Oregonians whose fate should be decided by fellow Eastern Oregonians."


The judge said he was mindful of the potential difference in jury pools, but denied the motion partly because travel to Pendleton would not be more convenient for witnesses and others in the case.



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