BURNS, Ore. (AP) — The remote high desert of eastern Oregon became the latest flashpoint for anti-government sentiment as armed protesters occupied a national wildlife refuge to object to a prison sentence for local ranchers for burning federal land.
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. It was unclear exactly how many people were taking part in the protests.
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.
Bundy and other militia members came to Burns last month, a small town about 280 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon. They were 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.
The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time – the father three months, the son one 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 four 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, including environmental and recreation.
In an interview with reporters late Saturday night posted on Facebook, Bundy said he and others are occupying a building at the refuge because “the people have been abused long enough.”
“I feel we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not take a hard stand, we’ll be in a position where we’ll be no longer able to do so,” he said.
Bundy said the group planned to stay at the refuge indefinitely. On Sunday, supplies were seen being delivered to the refuge area, which is remote even by rural Oregon standards.
Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Monday as ordered by the judge.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward told people to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation.
“A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution,” Ward said in a statement.
Beth Anne Steele, an FBI spokeswoman in Portland, said Saturday that the agency was aware of the situation at the national wildlife refuge. She made no further comment.
Not all local residents have welcomed the outside groups, fearing for the potential of violence. A peaceful rally Saturday in support of the Hammonds featured speeches, flags and marching.
As marchers reached the courthouse, they tossed hundreds of pennies at the locked door. Their message: Civilians were buying back their government. After the march passed, two girls swooped in to scavenge the pennies.
A few blocks away, Hammond and his wife, Susan, greeted marchers, who planted flower bouquets in the snow. They sang some songs, Hammond said a few words, and the protesters marched back to their cars.