BURNS, Ore. (KOIN/AP) — The remote high desert of eastern Oregon became the latest flashpoint for anti-government sentiment as armed protesters occupied a national wildlife refuge in objection to a prison sentence for local ranchers convicted of burning federal land.
Federal officials flew into Oregon on Sunday to take control of the situation in Burns where around 20 armed militants seized control of a building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Sources tell KOIN 6 News federal officials are working with local deputies to try to bring an end to the situation. The FBI will reportedly be the lead agency in dealing with the armed militants.
Ammon Bundy — the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights — is among the people at the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The group of armed militants says they’re not afraid to use force if the government tries to kick them off the property.
Ammon Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for militia members to come help him. He said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” where Burns is located.
He and other protesters from out of state came to Burns last month. They are upset over the looming prison sentences for local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. They went to the wildlife refuge Saturday evening following a peaceful rally in Burns to support the ranchers.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit the fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
They were convicted of the arsons 3 years ago and served time — the father 3 months, the son 1 year. But a federal judge ruled in October that their terms were too short under U.S. minimum sentencing law and ordered them back to prison for about 4 years each.
The decision generated controversy and is part of a decades-long dispute between some Westerners and the federal government over the use of public lands.
The issue traces back to the 1970s and the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a move by Western states like Nevada to increase local control over federal land. Critics of the push for more local control have said the federal government should administer the public lands for the widest possible uses.
Ammon Bundy told KOIN 6 News he and other militants decided to take over the property after alleged efforts by the wildlife refuge to push them out.
“This refuge right here is rightfully owned by the people,” he said. “[The Hammonds’] ranch is adjacent to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge… They have refused for nearly 40 years to sell their ranch and there have been very vindictive behaviors because they refused, and there have been intimidations and the list goes on.”
Ammon’s brother, Ryan Bundy, told the Associated Press his group wants to “restore the rights to people so they can use the land and resources” for ranching, logging, mining and recreation.
When asked how long the group will stay, Ammon Bundy told KOIN 6 News, “As long as is necessary.”
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy said. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
On Sunday, supplies were seen being delivered to the refuge area, which is remote even by rural Oregon standards. Protesters gave KOIN 6 News a tour of the now occupied headquarters that is now set up with a fully functioning kitchen and sleeping quarters.
In a statement on Saturday, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said, “A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation.”
On Sunday, Sheriff Ward issued a longer statement that said, in part:
These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to over throw the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.
We are currently working jointly with several organizations to make sure the citizens of Harney County are safe and this issue is resolved as quickly and peaceful as possible. At this time we do not have any information that any other areas in Harney County are in immediate danger.
We ask that people stay away from the refuge for their safety. We also ask that if anyone sees any of these individuals in the area to please contact law enforcement and do not confront the individuals themselves…
Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Monday as ordered by the judge.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is about 50 miles from Burns.