BURNS, Ore. (AP) — A monthlong occupation by armed protesters of a national wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon started out with demands that two jailed ranchers be freed and that the federal government relinquish 300 square miles to local control for ranching, mining, logging and other uses.
It has since led to the arrest of the occupation leader and others and the fatal police shooting of one group member during a confrontation with authorities. The occupiers have dwindled to four holdouts who demand they be allowed to pass through a perimeter of heavily-armed law enforcement officials without being arrested.
HOW DID THIS SITUATION BEGIN?
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On Jan. 2, a protest occurred in Burns, Oregon, amid mounting tension over the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond. Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit 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 three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year. But in October, a federal judge in Oregon ruled their terms were too short under U.S. law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each. A group of armed protesters broke away from the event in Burns and traveled 30 miles south to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their demands included the freeing of the jailed ranchers and that the wildlife refuge be turned over to local control.
WHAT WAS THE GROUP’S GOAL?
The occupiers attempted to tap into frustration, particularly in Harney County, among people who make a living off federal public land they see as being shut down as more emphasis is placed on landscapes that have value as functioning ecosystems and as places to hike, fish and recreate. The long-dominant uses of ranching, logging and mining now have to compete with other groups who have a different set of values. That has led to grazing and land-use restrictions, altering a system that has sustained rural areas for generations.
WHY HARNEY COUNTY?
Occupation leader Ammon Bundy often repeated a catchphrase that “Harney County is the place and these are the people.” The county has in fact been in an economic tailspin for decades, one of the biggest blows the closing of a lumber mill many blame on what they say are overly restrictive policies by the U.S. Forest Service. The occupiers considered the wildlife refuge itself prime cattle grazing land and planned to open it up this spring for cattle. Local residents during the occupation often said they agree with the sense of frustration with federal land managers but generally said the armed occupation was a step too far and has divided the small, nearby town of Burns.
WHAT DID BUNDY ACCOMPLISH?
Bundy called for ranchers to renounce federal grazing permits at a well-publicized event on Jan. 23 at the refuge, but only one rancher from New Mexico took part in the event. The Hammonds distanced themselves from the armed occupation, and local Harney County leaders, particularly Sheriff Dave Ward and Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, have voiced strong opposition to the occupation. Bundy has said he’ll continue voicing his opposition of federal land control as his case winds through the court system.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO BUNDY NOW?
Bundy and other group leaders were on their to a community meeting north of the refuge Tuesday when authorities set up a road block and arrested Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and others. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, the group’s spokesman, was killed in a confrontation with the FBI and Oregon State Police on the remote road. Authorities say Finicum jumped out of his truck after crashing near a police barricade and was reaching toward a loaded gun when police opened fire. Bundy and others arrested in conjunction with the standoff face felony charges of conspiracy to impede federal officials in their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats. They are in jail awaiting another court hearing this week.
WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE REFUGE NOW?
Most of the occupiers, thought to number a few dozen, quickly cleared out. A few more straggled out in the following days with three of them arrested. The four remaining have said they want to be allowed to go without arrest, and Ammon Bundy has called on the remaining occupiers to leave. The FBI says it’s trying to resolve the situation peacefully.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THE LAND IN OREGON?
President Theodore Roosevelt created the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1908. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 300-square-mile refuge is partly a marshland that’s a key rest area in the Oregon high desert for migrating birds. The number of migrating shorebirds qualifies the refuge as a Regional Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve, the wildlife service says. It also supports more than 20 percent of the state’s breeding population of greater sandhill cranes, as well as many other species. Birding is a popular pastime at the refuge, which also draws anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers.
Ridler reported from Boise, Idaho.