Armed occupiers of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge say federal control of Western lands is unconstitutional, and they’re seeking a hearing on the treatment of one local ranching family. Nearby residents, however, say they’re exasperated by the outside activists.
BURNS, Ore. — Clad in boots, cowboy hats and camouflage, a small band of antigovernment protesters stood in the snow and subfreezing cold on Monday at a federally owned wildlife sanctuary they have taken over, called themselves defenders of the Constitution, and declared that they were at the vanguard of a national movement to force Washington to release its hold on vast tracts of Western land.
For its part, the federal government appeared content, for now, to monitor the situation and wait out the protesters.
The armed group, which said it had adopted the name Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, has occupied a handful of buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near here since Saturday and says it does not plan to budge until its conditions are met.
Standoff in Oregon
The group is small — an exact number is hard to pin down — but claims to have the backing of a long list of antigovernment groups. Its goals are ambitious: The protesters want “the federal government to give up its unconstitutional presence in this county,” said Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders, at a news conference on Monday.
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Members of the group also want state and local officials to hold a hearing on what they say is the abuse of federal authority against one particular ranching family here, the Hammonds, two of whom surrendered to authorities on Monday and went to prison for arson.
Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond, who set fires that burned federal lands, have clashed with the government for decades over use of public lands, but Ammon Bundy said the underlying conflict was their refusal to sell their land to add to the wildlife refuge, despite government coercion.
The Hammonds served time in prison and were released, but a federal court ruled that they had been improperly sentenced and ordered them to serve more time.
Their lawyers called on President Obama to grant clemency, saying that the five-year sentences imposed on the Hammonds were excessive.
The confrontation at Malheur seems to be the latest iteration of a generations-old struggle between Westerners who make their living off the land, and the federal government that controls so much of it.
But for the protesters at the wildlife refuge — a preserve for native birds, “closed until further notice,” according to its website — there was no sign of the national groundswell of support they hoped to attract.
The FBI said that it would take the lead in handling the standoff, working with state and local agencies, but no effort was made to keep the occupiers from coming and going as they pleased.
In Burns, the nearest town to the wildlife center, people said they were exasperated by the activists, most of whom seem to be from outside the area.
“They’ve put us backwards,” said Patty Hodge, a bartender in this small town, who said the stream of patrons through the Central Pastime Tavern had expressed overwhelming disapproval of the protesters. “They’re here for their own agenda, not for the people of Harney County at all.”
David Ward, the Harney County sheriff, said that the people at the wildlife refuge claimed to be helping local people, but “that help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed and unlawful protest.”
“It is time for you to leave our community,” he told them. “Go home, be with your own families and end this peacefully.”
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, dismissed it as a “local law-enforcement matter” to which the president had not given much thought.
Federal officials may be mindful of prior clashes with people who did not recognize government authority — like those at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and near Waco, Texas, in 1993 — that ended in bloodshed and became rallying cries for antigovernment militants. In contrast, the government took a much more restrained approach in a 1996 standoff with the Montana Freemen, negotiating for 81 days until the group’s members surrendered.
The government retreated from the 2014 confrontation with Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher and the father of Ammon, when supporters rallied around him and threatened a gunbattle with federal officials. For more than two decades, Cliven Bundy has refused to pay fees for grazing his livestock on federal land, becoming a symbol of resistance.
Asked how the group would respond if the government tried to remove them forcibly, Ammon Bundy said, “We do not believe they will do that.”
Another of the occupiers, LaVoy Finicum, said that in general, the government crushes those who will not or cannot fight back. “They don’t go after the strongest wolf,” he said.
The incident added to a fierce debate on social media, with some people offering support to the antigovernment group, and others arguing that if the people involved had not been white, they would have been dealt with harshly.
As a precautionary measure, government offices in Harney County closed Monday, and public schools closed for the whole week.
The protesters here chose a low-profile way to make their stand, occupying an out-of-the-way place in the dead of winter.
They contend that under the Constitution, the federal government can own only a small amount of land, for very limited purposes — which does not include wildlife refuges — and can acquire land in a state only with the state’s consent. The courts have not agreed.
In a forum here last month, Ammon Bundy was explicit about starting a national movement, and said that God had instructed him to come here. “We can restore the Constitution back to this county, and it can be an example to all the other counties across this nation,” he told local residents. “The people of this country will come to you and protect you if you will make the right stand.”
A crucial lesson of Waco and Ruby Ridge “is to avoid an armed confrontation at all costs,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director for the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies law-enforcement policies. “Where the situation is contained and you can negotiate, there should be no rush to move in.”
But Heidi Beirich, the director of intelligence with the Southern Poverty Law Center who oversees the center’s tracking of extremist groups, said that there was a danger to under-reaction, and that the last Bundy standoff had set a bad precedent.
“They were emboldened by their ability to run federal officials off at the point of a gun,” Beirich said. “Now, a year and half later, there have been no prosecutions whatsoever. Pointing a gun at a federal officer is a crime.”
This is a sparsely populated region — heavily dependent on ranching and logging — where the federal government owns much of the land. Such areas are common in the West, with frequent conflicts between federal officials who control access to the land and people who want greater freedom to use it.
The Hammonds’ case became a cause célèbre for anti-government groups, including those calling themselves militias, who contend that the federal government has usurped powers that belong to people and the states.
A protest was held here in support of the Hammonds, and some of the protesters broke away and occupied the wildlife-refuge buildings.
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the group and its actions, as have other local residents.
“This county isn’t supportive of what’s being done here at all,” said Dan Nichols, a county commissioner who is a neighbor of the Hammond family. “Once again, it’s a bunch of those who live without the county telling us what we need to do, how we need to be doing it and the repercussions if we don’t.”
In a statement captured on video, Ammon Bundy said Sunday that his group was “prepared to be out here for as long as need be” and would leave only when the people of Harney County “can use these lands as free men.”