Right now in the small town of Burns, Oregon about 300 miles south of Portland there is an interesting drama playing out. A group of militiamen from around the west are being called by some domestic terrorists for taking over a government building and threatening to give federal park land back to the ranchers in the area.
The story has consumed social media with both Twitter and Facebook working overtime as the country debates the topic. Both sides of the issue have very passionate supporters and are vocal.
This all started with a peaceful protest Saturday on behalf of Dwight and Steven Hammond who left their home in Oregon yesterday and reported to prison in California today.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, served time for the fires in 2013. They contended that the fires were used to help protect their land from from lightning strikes by getting rid of brush. However, the Bureau of Land Management has a different view of things then the Hammonds family. They say the fires were set to cover up illegal deer hunting on the BLM acreage near their property. A second, much smaller fire in 2006 burned another acre of BLM land during a “burn ban” imposed to allow agency firefighters to combat a blaze caused by lightning.
A district judge sentenced Dwight to three months and Steve to 366 days of prison time. But the federal anti-terrorism law that prosecutors used to punish the fires includes mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years for fires that damage public property but cause no injury or death. After a series of appeals, the Hammond’s were re-sentenced in October of 2015 to the full five years required by that 1990s statute.
It’s this re-sentencing that prompted ranchers and militiamen from around the western U.S. to descend on Burns and protest the Hammonds’ treatment by prosecutors. A much smaller group of those protesters has since splintered off to seek an open conflict with federal agents by taking over a nearby wildlife facility.
They are in a small building owned by the Bureau of Land Management on the large Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, vowing to occupy the remote federal outpost 30 miles southeast of Burns for years.
“After the peaceful rally was completed Saturday, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters, said spokesperson for the Oregon Highway Patrol.”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.”
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.
Bundy says the federal government has expanded the refuge land at the expense of ranchers. “This facility actually has been a tool for the federal government to do all those things they have done to the Hammonds,” he said.
Asked how long the group will stay, Bundy told Portland TV station KOIN, “As long as is necessary.”
His father, Clive Bundy was also locked in a legal dispute with federal officials in Nevada that developed into an armed confrontation. He remains hopeful officials will not try to forcibly remove the group.
“We hope they will not do that, because we pose no threat to anybody,” Bundy said.
Oregon police are working with the FBI on the case and a spokesman told KOIN that they hoped for a “peaceful resolution” to the situation.
This has become a social media story that is picking up steam on cable news as well because at the moment because the problem of what to call the groups actions of taking over a federal building. Is it an act of terrorism by those online who see Bundy’s actions as unlawful, to put it mildly.
An overwhelming number of the militia members are not from Oregon, having traveled from as far as Colorado and Arizona. They have now blocked roads, placing armed guards in towers and restricting access.
Though law enforcement officials have taken a mostly hands-off approach so far, Bundy says they’re ready to respond with force if need be.
“If they did [exhibit force against us], they will be putting lives at risk because we are not putting anyone at risk right now,” Bundy said. “We are not endangering anyone, we are not harming anyone.”
The group’s end goal is to break down the wildlife refuge and redistribute the land to local ranchers.
“That plan will take several months at the shortest to accomplish,” Bundy said in a news conference Sunday.
When asked if he was a domestic terrorist, Bundy said he “encouraged the American people to look into this enough to make their own determination.”
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said the group of armed protesters came to town under false pretenses.
“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,” Ward said in a statement on Sunday afternoon.
The sheriff says he is working with local and federal authorities to keep the citizens in his county safe and to resolve the situation as quickly and peacefully as possible.
He is asking people to stay away from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for their own safety. He said he does not think any other parts of the county are in immediate danger.
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.
U.S. Sen. From Oregon, Ron Wyden, who had been briefed by the FBI agent in charge in Portland, was clear most local residents do not support the protesters.
Speaking to the media in Washington, D.C. today he said “The overwhelming majority of people there very much want to get on with their lives without this disruption and are not in sympathy with a bunch of outsiders.”