Several armed men have occupied a building on an Oregon wildlife refuge, protesting the prison terms of two ranchers convicted of arson on public lands.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, OR—one of the more remote federal outposts in the country—was the destination of a march supporting Dwight and Steven Hammond, two ranchers who claim the government is persecuting them because they wouldn’t sell their land. The two men face 5 years in prison.
Prosecutors said the Hammonds set the fire, which burned about 130 acres in 2001, to cover up poaching. The father and son were sentenced to five years in prison.
The Hammonds said they lit the fire to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires, CNN affiliate KTVZ reported.
After the march Saturday, the armed protesters broke into the refuge’s unoccupied building and refused to leave.
“We will be here as long as it takes,” said Ammon Bundy, a spokesman for the group. “We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.”
Bundy is the 40-year-old son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who drew national attention last year after staging a standoff with federal authorities over a Bureau of Land Management dispute.
Ammon Bundy said the group in Oregon was armed, but said he would not describe it as a militia. Bundy declined to say how many people were occupying the building.
“We are not terrorists,” he said. “We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children.”
But many were calling the armed protesters a “militia.”
“I don’t like the militia’s methods,” local resident Monica McCannon told KTVZ. “They had their rally. Now it’s time for them to go home. People are afraid of them.”
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said the agency and the Bureau of Land Management are aware of the armed protesters.
“While the situation is ongoing, the main concern is employee safety, and we can confirm that no federal staff were in the building at the time of the initial incident,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to monitor the situation.”
The prosecutor has a different story:
The prosecutor said witnesses saw the Hammonds illegally slaughter a herd of deer on public land.
“At least seven deer were shot with others limping or running from the scene,” Williams wrote.
He said a teenage relative of the Hammonds testified that Steven Hammond gave him a box of matches and told him to start the blaze. “The fires destroyed evidence of the deer slaughter and took about 130 acres of public land out of public use for two years,” the prosecutor wrote.
Williams also disputed the notion that the Hammonds were prosecuted as terrorists, like Bundy suggested.
The ranchers admit they set the fire and that the land they burned was public land. That would seem to prove the prosecution’s case. As for the reason they set the fire, the judge could have taken that into account during sentencing.
But the larger point being made by Bundy et al. needs airing. The federal government owns too much land—especially in the western U.S. Even more to the point, the government manages that land stupidly. Wildlife refuges are a fine idea—within reason. But reason, logic, and intelligence are sorely lacking as the government gives in to the demands of greens who weep when a tree is cut down, and think saving every insect, varmint, and weed should override the needs of human beings.
Depending on your point of view, you can argue about whether or not the armed protesters are right to symbolically demonstrate against government mismanagement of public lands by taking over federal property. Being provocative and peaceful guarantees press coverage.
But anytime there are opposing sides who are armed, there is the potential for violence. Is this specific issue worth the risk? Apparently, the protesters believe so.