BURNS — An armed anti-government group took over a remote national wildlife refuge in Oregon as part of a decades-long fight over public lands in the West, while federal authorities are keeping watch but keeping their distance.
The group came to the frozen high desert of eastern Oregon to contest the prison sentences of two ranchers who set fire to federal land, but their ultimate goal is to turn over the property to local authorities so people can use it free of American oversight.
People across the globe have marveled that federal authorities didn’t move to take back the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Residents say they have not seen a large presence of officers, and the government’s tactic generally is to monitor protesters from afar but leave them be as long as they don’t show signs of violence.
That’s how federal officials defused a high-profile 2014 standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing rights. Now, Bundy’s two sons are leading the push in Oregon.
Ryan Bundy told The Associated Press yesterday that he hopes the takeover will prompt others to take action across the country to seize control of federally managed land.
“The end goal here is that we are here to restore the rights to the people here so that they can use the land and resources. All of them,” Bundy said.
That means ranchers can graze their cattle, miners can use their mineral rights, loggers can cut trees, and hunters and fishers can shoot and cast, he said.
The latest dispute traces its roots to the 1970s and the “Sagebrush Rebellion”, a move by Western states like Nevada to increase local control over federal land. While ranchers and others complain of onerous federal rules, critics of the push for more local control have said the federal government should administer the public lands for the widest possible uses, including environmental and recreation.
Residents of the tiny town of Burns, 30 miles south of the wildlife refuge, are concerned about the potential for violence.
Keith Landon, a longtime resident and employee at the Reid Country Store, said he knows local law enforcement officials who fear their kids will be targeted by the group.
“I’m hoping most of it’s just muscle, trying to push,” he said. “But it’s a scary thing.”
If the situation turns violent, Bundy contends that it will be because of the federal government’s actions.
“I mean, we’re here to restore order, we’re here to restore rights, and that can go peacefully and easily,” he said.
The ranchers whose cause has been the rallying cry also reject the group’s support. Dwight and son Steven Hammond were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006. They served their original sentences — Dwight, three months and Steven, one year — but a judge ruled that the terms were too short under federal minimum sentencing laws.
Both men were ordered back to prison for four years each. They have said they plan to turn themselves in today.
The Bundy brothers say the group plans to stay at the refuge as long as it takes. They declined to say how many people were at the property where several pickup trucks blocked the entrance and armed men wore camouflage and winter gear.
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy told reporters over the weekend. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
The FBI is working with local and state authorities to “bring a peaceful resolution to the situation,” the bureau said in a statement late Sunday. It said it is the agency in charge and would not release details about the law enforcement response to ensure the safety of officers and those at the refuge.
Some are criticizing the lack of action, saying it is because those occupying the property are white.
Landon, the longtime Burns resident, said he sympathizes with the Bundys’ frustrations. Landon was a logger until the federal government declared the spotted owl a protected species in the 1980s, damaging the local logging industry.
“It’s hard to discredit what they’re trying to do out there. But I don’t want anybody hurt,” he said.
Landon said that on the surface, it doesn’t look like much has changed in Burns, a high desert town of about 2,700 people.
“It’s weird — I woke up this morning expecting the town to be crawling with this and that agency. But you don’t see any of it. They’re keeping a low presence,” Landon said yesterday.
However, most of the hotels in the area are booked, and he’s noticed that officers are doing their patrols in pairs instead of alone. The biggest difference since the takeover is the undercurrent of worry, he said.
“I’m glad they took the refuge because it’s
30 miles away,” Landon said. “I mean, they could have took the courthouse here in town.”