Verdicts are in for second Malheur Refuge occupation trial

After two and a half days of deliberation, the jury in the second trial involving occupiers of the Malheur Refuge, has delivered verdicts.  Unlike in the first trial, where the jury acquitted seven other defendants involved in the refuge occupation, this jury has delivered split verdicts.

Jason Patrick has been found guilty of conspiracy to impede federal workers, and not guilty of possessing a firearm in a federal facility.

Duane Ehmer has been found not guilty of conspiracy to impede federal workers, and guilty of depredation of government property.

Jake Ryan has been found not guilty of conspiracy to impede federal workers, not guilty of possession of a firearm in a federal facility, and guilty of depredation of government property.

Darryl Thorn has been found guilty of conspiracy to impede federal workers, and guilty of possession of a firearm in a federal facility.

All four defendants still face misdemeanor charges and are awaiting verdicts on those in a bench trial.

There Is No Fear In Love

_20170214_165846

Hatred never ceases by hatred; by love alone is it healed.  This is the ancient and eternal law.

-Buddha’s Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield (find it here).

It’s Valentine’s Day again.  Sure, it’s become a day of splurging on greeting cards, flowers, chocolates, etc, to show our romantic love for our partners.  But, I hope on this day of celebrating love we can remember to show some love for all of humanity too.  There seems to be a shortage of love lately.

In this increasingly divisive climate of fear, anger, and hatred, let’s all pause and remember to treat each other with compassion.  Let’s treat each other like the humans we all are.  Let’s honor our differences rather than attacking each other for them.  Let’s stop fearing each other, for we are all people who love, and are loved.  And there is no fear in love.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Unexploded: The Deadly Legacy of Cluster Bombs and Other Explosive Remnants of War

terror-155754_1280

Katie Aguilera, February 7, 2017

This month, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report for 2016 that details civilian casualties in Afghanistan for that year.  They reported a 3% increase in civilian casualties since 2015, as much as a 24% increase among children.  The majority of these casualties are the result of on-the-ground fighting, airstrikes, and attacks, but there is an increasing number of civilians falling casualty to what is often called unexploded ordnance, or UXO.

The report states, “between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016, UNAMA documented 326 incidents of explosive remnants of war detonation resulting in 724 civilian casualties (217 deaths and 507 injured), an increase of 66% compared to 2015.”  84% of those casualties were children, 183 killed and 426 injured.

Unexploded ordnance are explosive weapons that fail to detonate when employed.  They can be various types of bombs and shells, grenades, land mines, cluster munitions, etc.  Cluster munitions, or cluster bombs, are particularly heinous bombs that separate in mid-air and scatter hundreds of smaller “bomblets” over a wide area.  Not all of those bomblets explode, however, with failure rates estimated between 1% to as high as 30%.  These can be, and often are, detonated accidentally by civilians.  The UNAMA report documented the following personal account from a 13-year-old girl:

“Yesterday, I was playing with other children on the streets near our house in the village.  I saw our neighbor, a boy who later died, holding something made of metal.  I knew it was something explosive.  He told all of us, ‘I’m going to detonate it.’

I slapped him on the face and told him, ‘don’t do it!’ and then I moved farther away from him.  He began hitting the object with a stone.  It exploded.  I fell unconscious and I don’t know what happened next.”

According to the report, that explosion killed four children and injured three more, including the 13-year-old girl.

The report states, “children living in conflict-affected areas are less likely to have received mine-risk education, and motivated by natural curiosity, frequently pick up familiar and shiny objects near their homes while playing outside.  Children also use metal-detectors to find scrap metal to sell, often searching former battlefields or farmland where stray dud ordnance can be found.”  Many people collect scrap metal in spite of the known risks, and farmers are also heavily affected by unexploded ordnance as they work the land.

Afghanistan is far from alone in dealing with this horrible legacy of ongoing war.  According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor 2016 report on cluster munitions, the estimated number of global, all-time casualties for 33 countries is 55,000.  Many of those casualties have occurred in Southeast Asia, where people are still being killed today by bombs dropped by the United States over four decades ago.

By far the hardest hit country is Laos, where the United States dropped 414,000 cluster munitions, containing an estimated 260 million submunitions during it’s so-called  ‘secret war’ in that country between 1965 and 1973.  In neighboring Vietnam, where the US was fighting overtly, 296,000 cluster munitions containing nearly 97 million submunitions were dropped.  Even at the lowest estimated failure rate, that is a lot of live bombs left lying around.  It is no wonder that an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed by UXO since 1975, according to George Black in his May 2016 New Yorker article.

The cluster munitions monitor report goes on to document that in the US invasion of Afghanistan, in the years 2001 and 2002, 1,228 cluster bombs were dropped, containing 248,056 submunitions.  It adds, “in 2003 in Iraq, the US and the UK used nearly 13,000 cluster munitions, containing an estimated 1.8 to 2 million submunitions in the 3 weeks of major conflict.”

In May of 2008, more than 100 nations signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions agreeing to prohibit the use of cluster munition weapons.  The United States is not one of them.   According to this Congressional research report, the US policy on cluster munitions is defended because “using cluster munitions reduces the number of aircraft and artillery systems needed to support military operations, and that if cluster munitions were eliminated, significantly more money would need to be spent on new weapons systems, ammunition, and logistical resources. Officials further suggest that if cluster munitions were eliminated, most militaries would increase their use of massed artillery and rocket barrages, which would likely increase destruction of key infrastructure.”

The State Department has claimed the US stopped using cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, but the US continues to profit from them by selling them to other countries, most noticeably to Saudi Arabia who employs the weapons in Yemen.

It is yet another tragedy of war that goes largely unnoticed in countries not affected by unexploded ordnance.  According to the cluster munition monitor report, the degree of contamination from UXO is still unknown for Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and  Ukraine.  Civilians made up the vast majority, 94%, of cluster munition casualties from 2010 to 2015, with children under the age of 18 accounting for 40% of those.  Even if the United States were to end it’s ongoing wars of aggression around the globe, it is unlikely the casualties caused by the unexploded ordnance left behind will end any time soon.

children-60638_1920
Children account for 40% of casualties caused by cluster munitions

Images are credited to pixabay.

Former California firefighter enters federal prison to serve second sentence for arson committed nine years ago.

img_3708-copy-2-copy

On October 31, 2016, Benjamin Cunha surrendered himself to a minimum security federal prison camp in California to serve a five-year sentence for arson on federal land.  It will be the second time he will serve a prison sentence for fires he started during the summers of 2005 through 2007.

Cunha, then a fire fighter, started numerous fires in grassy road side areas and hill side stands of oak trees in Amador and El Dorado counties over the course of those summers.  He was arrested in September 2007, and in March, 2008, after reaching an agreement with state prosecutors, Cunha pleaded guilty to two counts of arson.  As part of his plea deal, he agreed to give details to the Cal Fire investigators about the fires he started in exchange for transactional immunity from further prosecution.  He was given a six-year sentence by the state court for those fires in 2008.  Most of his sentence was suspended, and he served a full year in the El Dorado County jail and then five years on probation.  (Read here for more detail about Cunha’s story.)

After serving his sentence in state prison, Cunha returned to his community and set out to successfully fulfill his probation.  He moved on with his life, believing he had served his time and his past mistakes were behind him.  However, in the summer of 2013, after two suspicious fires started in the Amador/El Dorado area, Cunha became the prime suspect, and was arrested in August 2013.  No evidence has been put forward to connect Cunha with the two 2013 fires, and in the end, he was not charged for those.  Instead, federal prosecutors charged him with two counts of felony arson for fires he had started in 2006/2007 that had burned onto federal land.

In spite of the transactional immunity he had received from the state prosecutors in 2008, Cunha now faced federal charges for fires he had started six years before. The federal prosecutors argued that “the uncompelled grant of transactional immunity by the state prosecutors does not bind federal authorities.”

In February 2016, after agreeing to another deal with prosecutors to receive a shorter sentence, Cunha was sentenced to five years in federal prison, the federal mandatory minimum sentence for one count of arson.

US District Judge John A. Mendez, who presided over Cunha’s 2016 case, had the following to say about Cunha’s sentencing, according to court transcripts.

“My question for the government is, why did it take five years to indict this defendant?  I don’t understand this case in a lot of ways…

…neither the state court lawyers nor the judges anticipated any possible federal involvement in this [in 2008].  They let him talk, and for that you’re paying a price, Mr. Cunha.  But I didn’t see any explanation, when you already had a confession–and now we’re nine years almost, eight and a half years since he was arrested.

And he’s an individual that clearly has turned his life around, has become a productive member.  While you continually refer to him as a serial arsonist, he was eight years ago, and for that, the state prosecuted him.

But I saw no explanation…as to why it took five years for the United States to decide let’s indict this guy now.  It just seems out of the ordinary to me.  I know that there were two federal properties involved, but you knew that back in 2007.  You had a confession.  I don’t know how this got lost in the shuffle or why, after all those years, you decided he needed to be indicted.”

At a follow-up sentencing hearing, Judge Mendez said to Cunha, “I think this is an excessive penalty.  You do have a price to pay for what you did, and I completely understand that.  I think the state handled that, but the Federal Government disagreed.  And as a federal judge, I’m required to apply the law as it sits…You don’t deserve a five-year sentence.”

The sixth amendment to the US Constitution states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…”  Not a trial that takes place nearly nine years after the crime was committed, and admitted to, by the defendant.  Not a trial that takes place after the defendant has already served a sentence for and moved on from his crime, maintaining a productive and crime-free life ever since.

Judge Mendez said at Cunha’s sentencing, “I’m not saying you [federal prosecutors] didn’t have a right to bring the case, but to bring it nine years, or eight and a half years, after the fact concerns me.”

Cunha now faces five years in a minimum security prison camp where he spends his weekdays at an E waste recycling facility dismantling and sorting electronics.  He describes the camp as an old air force base that has no fences and the door is never locked.  He says he is free to go outside whenever he pleases, and that he leaves the camp and walks to the E waste recycling facility along a public road to work Monday through Friday.  Cunha points out that he could be doing the same thing on house arrest, actually working, paying taxes, and supporting his family.

This is an interesting point to consider.  The California Legislature’s non-partisan fiscal and policy advisor, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, estimates it costs an average of $71,000.00 a year to incarcerate an inmate in California.  Of course that figure would vary based on the security level and location of prisons, health and age of an inmate, etc, but that is no small sum.  How many inmates are serving a sentence due to indiscriminate mandatory minimum sentences in facilities like the one Cunha is in at the expense of taxpayers, and at the expense of the families that are pulled apart by such incarceration?  At what cost does this apparent need for what is perceived to be suitable, one-size-fits-all punishment come to our society?

2017 Is Here

cheers-839865_1920

It’s hard to believe it.  The new year is upon us and my wish is that it will bring peace and healing for all of us.

The past year has been a crazy one.  There were so many stories around the world to follow, but the stories that really left the strongest impressions on me happened closer to home.

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a story I followed obsessively beginning around 10pm on January 2nd, 2016.  I’m still obsessively following the ongoing outcomes of that event, and maybe one of these days I’ll write down some of my reflections on it all.

Of course, the Malheur occupation brought the story of the Hammond family to my attention.  Their treatment by the justice system is upsetting, and the family faces numerous hardships as a result.

Two more stories that crossed my radar as a result of the Malheur occupation are still unfolding.  One is the proposed national monument to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands.  President Obama just declared two new monuments, Gold Butte in Nevada and Bears Ears in Utah.  The other story is the implementation of Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan, and the decision by some Oregon ranchers to file a lawsuit challenging aspects of the plan.

One more story that I have written about is another example of the justice system gone wrong.  Benjamin Cunha was given a six-year sentence, most of which was suspended, for arson.  He served a year in prison and five years on probation, then moved on with his life, only to be sentenced again, this time by the federal government, to a five-year sentence, eight years later.  I’ll be posting an update on his story soon.

While following these stories and writing about them, I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of great people.  I am grateful for all my new friends, and thankful for all the help they have given me.  In spite of all the negativity in the world around us, these people have given me hope.  I welcome 2017, and will keep doing whatever I can to make this world a better place.  So here’s to a happy New Year, for everyone!

I have just one resolution for 2017…I will finish my novel!

 

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Oregon’s Greater sage-grouse management plan is being put to the test in Harney County

greater-sage-grouse-936696_1280

The Harney County Soil and Water Conservation District, or SWCD, won a national Landscape Stewardship Award in 2014 for their efforts in working with ranchers to improve greater sage-grouse habitat in the county.  Now, after the finalization of Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan, and months of seeking amendments to the plan, the ranchers and the Harney County SWCD have filed a lawsuit challenging the plan.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service determined in March, 2010, that the greater sage-grouse deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act due to a lack of protections for the bird’s sagebrush habitat.  However, after an unprecedented collaborative effort between various agencies, environmental groups, industry stakeholders, and private landowners to develop a plan that would protect the sage-grouse and its habitat, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined the greater sage-grouse no longer required protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Oregon governor Kate Brown signed an executive order in September 2015, enacting Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan.

This collaborative effort to develop a management plan that would protect the sage-grouse population while also protecting the interests of industries such as ranching, mining, and energy development has been celebrated as a model effort for conservation throughout western states, but many are left unhappy with the final result.  Ranchers in Harney County feel as though their efforts have been ignored.

Travis Williams, a fifth-generation Harney County rancher, said, “we collaborated with NRCS, helping with local individuals, put together conservation agreements, the CCAA’s, that were models to the nation, did a bunch of work to save the bird, and they came back to us, didn’t look at our local opinions on how to address this bird.  It was a slap in the face.”

The Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, started the Sage Grouse Initiative, or SGI, which is a partnership of ranchers, agencies, universities, non-profit groups, and businesses that work to conserve the sage-grouse through sustainable ranching.  The initiative was launched in 2010 and works to fund conservation projects in 11 western states to preserve sage-grouse habitat.

Oregon is home to 6.3% of the known population of male greater sage-grouse range-wide, and holds 10.9% of the bird’s total habitat, according to the Bureau of Land Management.  The Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership, or SageCon, is a collaborative group similar to the SGI that is working in Oregon for the same goals.  One of the ways these groups have made progress is through Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, or CCAA’s.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a CCAA is a “formal agreement between the Service and one or more parties to address the conservation needs of proposed or candidate species, or species likely to become candidates, before they become listed as endangered or threatened.  Landowners voluntarily commit to conservation actions that will stabilize or restore the species with the goal that listing will become unnecessary.”  These agreements usually offer landowners some protection from future regulations in the event the species does become listed as threatened or endangered.

In Harney County, the SWCD worked as an intermediary between ranchers and the various land and wildlife management agencies to develop a CCAA.  Nearly 40 ranchers were willing to sign onto the CCAA, agreeing to a list of proactive changes to be made on private and public land in exchange for a 30-year delay to further regulations if the sage-grouse is listed as threatened or endangered.

Jeremy Austin, the Hart-Shelton coordinator for Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA, says the Oregon sage-grouse management plan has great potential to reverse the decline of the sage-grouse population.  He said the collaborative effort set the gold standard for sage-grouse management in other areas, but its success will ultimately rely on how the plan is implemented.

Williams describes some of the changes he has made in his operations as being beneficial overall, saying, “what’s good for the cows is good for the wildlife.”  He has had contractors thinning juniper trees to prevent perches for sage-grouse predators, and this also results in more water for grazing forage.  He has been planting crested wheat grass, a non-native species that is more fire-resistant than native grasses, to create fire breaks which also help preserve forage for his cattle.

Williams said, “on our private land, we started fall grazing a lot more, combating invasive weeds and cheat grass, which I believe is working well.”  Invasive plant species are considered one of the greatest threats to sage-grouse due to the increased risk of habitat destruction through wildfire.  Grazing in the fall and winter months targets invasive grasses while most of the native perennial grasses are dormant.

While these changes have been positive over all, the ranchers still have concerns about many of the management plan’s requirements.  Both Austin of ONDA, and the ranchers, highlight the fact that this plan covers a vast amount of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, an agency they agree is hindered by a lack of personnel needed to complete all the necessary monitoring of the sage-grouse population and habitat.   Austin said this is one area where things might go wrong in the implementation of the plan as the BLM is limited in its staff.  The ranchers are concerned this will “provide a target rich environment for groups to challenge public land grazing.”

Harney County ranchers are not alone in their concerns, there are numerous federal court cases challenging the sage-grouse management plans developed in other western states filed by the livestock and mineral industries and by state and local governments.  A case has also been filed by a group of environmental organizations challenging the Idaho plan in federal court, arguing the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the sage-grouse.

Williams said, “we finally have the chance to be on the offensive, and there’s mixed feelings in the county over that.  It’s becoming quite an issue, there’s some hard feelings right now.  But, they are going through with the litigation, the first money has been put out and got the lawyer hired, and it’s been filed in Washington [D.C.].”  He explained that one of the concerns raised against suing, saying, “some of the people that are against this litigation are saying we’re just opening it up for ONDA and these other groups to sue the BLM, but that’s going to happen anyway.”

Austin said the Oregon plan is really good compared to plans in other states, and he doesn’t see any lawsuits against it on ONDA’s horizon.  He added that ONDA will closely watch how the plan is implemented, but at this time he doesn’t see a need for environmental groups to challenge the plan in court.

The ranchers in Harney County believe the BLM violated its own procedures for land and resource management plan development under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, and the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering the local alternative plan for protecting the sage-grouse.  According to Williams, “there are 11 points that should have been part of the decision, and the process, but were not.  They [BLM] are in direct violation of this process, their FLPMA documents state they need to coordinate with the local officials, but they haven’t.”

Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan will likely face even more challenges as its implementation takes effect.  The collaborative efforts to create a plan that works for all involved highlights both positive changes in land use, and the deep frustration felt by industries trying to survive under increasing regulations.  Williams expressed this frustration as he described the years of collaborative work.  “We tried to make them meet us in the middle.  With collaboration, you are kind of giving and taking, and we’ve been giving a lot more than we’ve been taking.  For years.”

 

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Healing On The Range: A Look At Central Oregon Veterans Ranch

dsc_1555

Alison Perry described the 19 acres of land situated between Bend and Redmond, Oregon, as a place of peace while leading a tour of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch on Friday, December 2, 2016. She said the ranch will help veterans find a sense of purpose and meaning, and it is designed to be a community for veterans, built by veterans.  Perry also described a desire to bring attention to the lack of services currently available for Central Oregon veterans in spite of the large number who live in the area.  She pointed out that veterans make up nine to ten percent of the Central Oregon population, numbering around 20,000.

Perry is the executive director of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch.  She has been working with veterans since 2003, including as a trauma therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.  As she spoke with the group of around twenty-five people gathered for the tour, Perry described a couple of cases she had dealt with that inspired her to found the ranch.  She talked about the efforts that have gone into creating this place of healing, and the plans for its success.  Her determination to help veterans, and her dedication to this project were very apparent as she described her work and the ranch.

dsc_1546

The Central Oregon Veterans Ranch is a working ranch.  Currently it is home to numerous animals; chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, even mini donkeys.  The ranch plans to build a greenhouse for growing produce, and has received donations for this project from Central Oregon rotary groups.  Veterans can volunteer to help on the ranch, and Perry said just the day before the tour, 18 local veterans had come out to work, many of them dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Coming to the ranch, working on projects there, and helping with the animals, is therapeutic.  According to the ranch brochure, “studies and pilot programs prove that veterans engaged in farming and ranching and returning to meaningful forms of service succeed.  Combat veterans struggling to re-engage in their communities after returning from deployment become productive members of their community and beyond after participating in sustainable agriculture and ranching activities.”

dsc_1554

The tour ended with a look at the bright and airy home that will soon be opened as an adult foster care facility serving up to four terminally ill or aged veterans.  The home has been recently remodeled, with money from a private grant, and much of the work has been done by veteran volunteers.  It has been furnished with money donated by the Central Oregon chapter of 100 Women Who Care. There are three bedrooms for the residents, with four beds covered with beautifully made, red, white, and blue quilts.  There is another space for a live-in residential assistant, who is already living at the ranch, and described the job as a dream job.

dsc_1541

dsc_1539

Priority will be given to Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange related illnesses, according to Perry, and the cost of the service is based on a sliding scale which will allow the ranch to serve indigent veterans.  The home will provide “an environment that fosters dignity, improves quality of life, and provides specialized care for the unique needs of the Veteran population,” according to the ranch’s website.  Perry pointed out that there are no veterans’ specific senior care facilities currently in Central Oregon, and she said the facility intends to place a lot of focus on healing at end of life from PTSD.

dsc_1544

The ranch is a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the Three Sisters and Broken Top. Perry said she has been told by volunteers that they feel a sense of peace as they cross the cattle guard at the entrance to the property, and she stated, “the property itself is an intervention.”  It is easy to see why it can bring peace and healing to anyone visiting or working there.

The Central Oregon Veterans Ranch continues to raise funds to grow the operation.  Currently they are inviting people to become a part of the First 100 Campaign by being one of the first 100 to make a donation of $1000.00 or more.  Those who do will have their name memorialized in a Peace Garden planned for the ranch.  Donations of any size are welcome, including donations of services, time, and goods, such as the coffee donated by Strictly Organic of Bend that was served during the tour.  Of course, there is also the weekly veterans volunteer day on Thursdays.  The ranch also invites anyone to tour the property.  More information can be obtained by calling 541-706-9062, and by visiting their website at www.centraloregonveteransranch.org.

dsc_1556