State commissioner of public lands candidate Steve McLaughlin distanced himself Wednesday from an organization that helped armed occupiers of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
In an interview with The Olympian’s Editorial Board, McLaughlin, a Republican, said he was involved with a coalition of lawmakers from several states calling for the release of imprisoned ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson for lighting fires on private property that spread to government land they had leased to graze cattle.
But he said he wasn’t involved with the coalition’s efforts to help an armed group that took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, in January to protest the Hammonds’ jailing.
The occupiers, led by Ammon Bundy and some of his family, also demanded during their 41-day occupation that the U.S. turn public lands over to local governments.
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“When the Bundys took over the wildlife refuge, I immediately went out and said, ‘That is not following the rule of law,’ and I did not support it,” McLaughlin told the Editorial Board.
The Hammonds initially spent time in jail for the 2012 arson conviction, but a federal judge last year sent them back to prison for about four years after ruling their earlier terms were too short. Dwight Hammond is Steve Hammond’s father.
McLaughlin said the Hammonds should not have been imprisoned again, adding there’s a “better resolution.” McLaughlin, an Oregon native, said his father and brother have worked at ranches near the Malheur refuge, which partially sparked his interest in the issue.
In late 2015, McLaughlin signed a letter with The Coalition of Western States, or COWS, demanding the Hammonds’ release. Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, and former Rep. Graham Hunt — both Republicans — also signed the letter.
Shea and Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore were involved in efforts to peacefully end the occupation, according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Some involved in the occupation were eventually arrested and charged with various crimes. Seven are being tried in court. COWS has asked for them to be pardoned and released.
McLaughlin said he wasn’t involved in efforts at the refuge and that he believes the occupiers charged with crimes should face trial.
“My position is, it’s not in my realm to take back federal lands,” McLaughlin said.
Some ranchers including the Hammonds and the Bundys have clashed with the U.S. government over access to cattle grazing on federal land.
McLaughlin said he’s “adamantly opposed” to selling public lands to private interests and doesn’t have reservations about the amount of state-held public land in Washington.
The commissioner of public lands oversees the state Department of Natural Resources, Washington’s largest firefighting force, and land leases that provide school construction money. The department is responsible for maintaining forests, parks, public aquatic lands and more.
McLaughlin is a former U.S. Navy commander who served in the military for 25 years.
His opponent is Democrat Hilary Franz, an environmental attorney who once served on the City Council for Bainbridge Island. A message seeking comment was not immediately returned by her campaign.
The general election is Nov. 8.