The flashpoint for Saturday's takeover of the headquarters of the
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon,
was the imminent incarceration of two ranchers convicted of arson
and re-sentenced to longer prison terms.
But the occupation marked the latest flare-up of anger against the
U.S. government over federal management of public land in the West,
long seen by political conservatives in the region as an intrusion
on individual freedom and property rights.
Federal authorities have so far kept their distance from the
wildlife refuge, which remained closed to visitors.
The FBI said in a statement it was seeking a "peaceful resolution to
the situation," while Obama administration officials said U.S. law
enforcement officers had been told to avoid a violent confrontation
with the occupiers.
Protest leader Ammon Bundy, whose father's ranch in Nevada was the
scene of an armed standoff against federal land managers in 2014,
told reporters on Monday his group had named itself Citizens for
Constitutional Freedom and was making a stand for personal liberty.
"They (the federal government) are coming down into the states and
taking over the land and the resources, putting the people into
duress, putting the people into poverty," he said.
Flanked by supporters, Bundy declined to say how many were
participating in the takeover. But about a half-dozen occupiers were
visible to reporters, some in a watchtower on the property and
others standing around a vehicle used to block an access road.
The two ranchers whose cause Bundy's group has embraced - Dwight
Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven - turned themselves over to federal
authorities in California earlier on Monday.
Some residents in Burns, a town of some 3,000 people about 280 miles
(451 km) southeast of Portland, voiced sympathy with the militia
group's cause, if not its methods.
But many said they viewed the occupation as mostly, if not entirely,
the work of outside agitators - a sentiment echoed by Harney County
Sheriff David Ward.
"You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County," Ward
said at a news conference in Burns, addressing Bundy's group in a
statement he read on behalf of himself and county Judge Steven
Grasty. "It is time for you to leave our community, go home to your
families, and end this peacefully."
The sheriff said the takeover had "significantly impacted" the local
community, where authorities have closed public schools and some
government offices as a precaution.
Three administration officials told Reuters that federal authorities
were following U.S. policy guidelines instituted to prevent such
standoffs from turning violent in the wake of deadly clashes at Ruby
Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas in the early 1990s.
The Oregon occupation marked the latest skirmish in the so-called
sagebrush rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of
millions of acres (hectares) of land and natural resources in the
West, much of it administered by the Interior Department, parent
agency of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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It followed a demonstration in Burns over the case of the Hammonds,
who were found guilty in 2012 of setting a series of fires,
including a 139-acre (56-hectare) blaze in 2001 intended to cover up
evidence of wildlife poaching, according to federal prosecutors.
The younger Hammond was initially sentenced to 12 months in prison
and the father three months, below the federal minimum for arson. In
October, a U.S. district judge increased the sentences to five
Through an attorney, they have dissociated themselves from Bundy's
Residents interviewed by Reuters said that while the U.S. government
could sometimes seem overzealous in enforcing rules on ranchers, it
was also a major local employer.
Wendy Bull, a teacher, came to listen to the sheriff's remarks in
part so she could ask when her husband, a social worker, could
reopen a local clinic run by the U.S. Veteran Affairs Department.
"I believe that they are domestic terrorists," she said of the
Patrick Wright, 33, a taxi driver who said he knew the Hammonds,
agreed with the protesters that sending the two men back to prison
"I get why they're here," Wright said of the occupiers. "Taking over
the refuge and threatening gun violence is a little extreme, but
it's getting them heard, that's for sure."
Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose ranch was the
scene of an armed demonstration against federal Bureau of Land
Management officials in 2014 that ended with the authorities backing
down, citing safety concerns.
That standoff drew hundreds of armed protesters after federal agents
sought to seize Bundy's cattle because he refused to pay grazing
The takeover in Oregon drew criticism on social media, with some
users asking if the occupiers would have been treated differently if
they had been black or Muslim.
The Hammond ranch borders the southern edge of the Malheur refuge, a
bird sanctuary in eastern Oregon's arid high desert, about 305 miles
(490 km) southeast of Portland.
(Reporting by Jim Urquhart and Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting
by Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton in Washington, and Suzannah
Gonzales in Chicago; Writing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis;
Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Clarence Fernandez)
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