A Utahn who joined a 2016 standoff at a wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon is relieved by President Trump’s decision to pardon two ranchers whose case sparked anti-government protests.
Kanab resident Shawna Cox was at home Tuesday when she heard the news about the presidential pardons of Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven. Crying, she phoned Susie Hammond, the family matriarch.
"This is the right thing, and we're grateful for President Trump," Cox said in a telephone interview.
In June 2012 the Hammonds were convicted of setting fires in 2001 and 2006 on federal land they leased for cattle grazing. After their original sentence was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the two men were re-sentenced in October 2015 to five years in prison.
In protest of the sentence, the Hammonds' supporters took over buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just after New Year's Day in 2016. Cox was one of the occupiers, who said the federal government was overstepping its authority by prosecuting the Oregon cattle ranchers for arson.
On Jan. 27, Cox was riding in the pickup of a friend and fellow Oregon protester, LaVoy Finicum, when the truck ran into the shoulder at a roadblock near Burns, Ore. Law enforcement officers shot and killed Finicum. Authorities said Finicum appeared to reach into his coat for a gun.
Cox recorded the dramatic scene on her smartphone, which was played during her trial on federal charges related to the occupation. Cox and six other occupiers were aquitted that fall.
"This was the cause of so much grief for people," Cox said. "We need justice in America. And this really isn't justice but it is a step.”
In a statement about the pardons, the White House said “justice was overdue” for the Oregon ranchers. The White House statement also described the Hammonds as men who are devoted to their families and respected in their community.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, also cheered Trump's pardons of the Oregon ranchers.
“I’m glad President Trump chose to weigh in on the unjust sentencing of the Hammonds,” said in a statement issued by the Congressional Western Caucus. "I wish the Hammonds well in returning to their families and local communities.”
Cox said the federal government never had the right to prosecute the Hammonds.
The Hammonds claimed they first had burned the land to eradicate invasive species, but prosecutors successfully argued the fires were intended to hide an illegal slaughter of deer on Bureau of Land Management property.
“The people that live there — that's their land," she said. "It's not for the federal government to come and take your land and claim it for their own and say they have control over it.”
Cox's view has supporters in the West, but critics say Trump’s action now means greater risk for employees of national parks and other public lands.
“This sends a very chilling message to the men and women that defend America’s public lands every day that law-breaking government extremists can have their way with the Trump administration,” said Chris Saeger of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based land conservation group.