Rick Bowmer / AP

Oregon locals share occupiers’ frustration, don’t support tactics

Residents of Harney County, other regional militias disagree with armed takeover but also want less federal control

Residents of Harney County, Oregon, where a group of armed men have occupied a federal wildlife refuge since Jan. 2, say they, too, are “sick and tired” of the federal government, but they disagree with the armed takeover and want the group to leave.

Hundreds of local residents are expected at a community meeting on Monday hosted by Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, and they plan to meet weekly as long as the occupation continues.

Around 700 people attended last week’s meeting — about 10 percent of the county’s population, according to Laura Cleland, communications director for the Association of Oregon Counties.

“It was overwhelming in terms of the local community wanting the armed militants to go home,” said Cleland. “That wasn’t 100 percent unanimous, there was a small group who didn’t support that.”

“What was unanimous was that these folks are sick and tired of the federal government,” she added.

The heart of the issue is the federal government’s ownership of vast swaths of land in the western United States and competing priorities for that land. The needs of ranchers, who need a lot of land for their cattle and must lease much of it from the federal government, must be balanced with other priorities, including environmental protection.

But some ranchers argue that the bureaucrats who have so much influence over their livelihoods often make arbitrary decisions and have little experience in the food industry. “Utilizing federal land requires ranchers to follow an unfair, complicated and constantly evolving set of rules,” Oregon rancher Keith Nantz wrote in the Washington Post. “For example, a federal government agency might decide that it wants to limit the number of days a rancher can graze their cattle to protect a certain endangered plant or animal species."

In part because of these perceived overreaches, militias across the Northwest associated with the Pacific Patriots Network — including the Oregon 3 Percent, Idaho 3 Percent, Oath Keepers of Oregon, and the Oregon Constitutional Guard — rallied behind the Hammond Family in Harney County. 

The groups held a peaceful rally on Jan. 2 in support of Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond.

The two were convicted of committing arson on public land near their property, under a federal anti-terrorism law. Each had served 12-month prison terms handed to them by the sentencing judge but were later told by appellate judges they had to serve five years instead.

That shocked the local community and activists, who rallied in support. But other groups also joined the Burns rally, including Ammon Bundy, son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who came with a group of armed men. During the rally, the Pacific Patriots Network said Bundy and his group split off and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. 

“Following the peaceful protest, members of militias and individuals voiced their decision to take a hard stand, which would be to seize a Federal National Wildlife building in Malheur County, and succeeded in doing so,” the network said in a press release. “These actions were premeditated and carried out by a small group of persons who chose to carry out this takeover after the rally.”

The local group said that it “in no way condone nor support these actions,” the release said.

Some militia leaders said Bundy was using the dispute to provoke the federal government, regardless of the wishes of the local community.

"What the Hammonds want and what the community wants is immaterial," said Mike Vanderboegh, a founder of the 3 Percent Movement, which draws its name from the notion that only 3 percent of Americans actively participated in the Revolutionary War.

Over the weekend, members of the Pacific Patriots Network arrived in Burns with the aim of “de-escalating” the situation, according to leader Brandon Curtiss. They plan to patrol the perimeter around the occupied refuge, although Ammon Bundy said he did not request or want their help.

Curtiss also delivered a proposal for reaching a peaceful resolution to the standoff to local law enforcement officials, federal agencies and the occupiers. The FBI, which has set up offices in the Burns Municipal Airport and a Burns school district facility, said it had no comment and no new information to report.

Three Obama administration officials said federal authorities had been told to avoid a violent confrontation, in line with official U.S. policy after the deadly clashes in Waco, Texas in 1993 and Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992.

With wire services

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