Burns, Oregon — Armed supporters of two Oregon ranchers in the middle of an anti-government firestorm say they won't leave a national wildlife refuge until the U.S. returns land to the ranchers and local governments.
The standoff pits the federal government against the gun-toting protesters at the forefront of a national controversy over how to manage land in the West.
"Our purpose, as we have shown, is to restore and defend the Constitution," said Ammon Bundy, a rancher who is leading the protest at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge along with his brother, Ryan.
The ranchers, Dwight Hammond, 73, and son Steven, 46, were convicted three years ago of starting brush fires on federal property that they say were designed to prevent larger wildfires and to halt invasive plant species. They served short prison sentences, but a judge ordered them to return to prison for four years because the time they served did not meet minimum-sentencing laws.
They've now become iconic figures to protesters who seek federal reforms in land management policies they say are unjust and unduly deprive citizens of land.
The Hammonds said Monday that they will seek clemency from President Obama. But they also said they would "respect the rule of law" and report to prison. Harney County Sheriff David Ward said the pair turned themselves in early Monday afternoon.
Speaking to reporters at a local junior high school, Ward addressed the protesters directly: "You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation."
He added: "The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It's time for you to leave our community. Go home to your families and end this peacefully."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday called the standoff a local law enforcement matter.
“Obviously, the federal government has a vested interest,” he said. ”It is federal land and federal property that is being occupied. And that is why the FBI is closely monitoring the situation, has offered their assistance to local law enforcement officials who are dealing with the situation. But ultimately, our chief interest is the prompt and peaceful resolution of this particular matter.”
The occupation began Saturday after an estimated 300 protesters marched through the nearby town of Burns. The Bundys and some of the protesters — it was not clear how many — then headed to the isolated refuge and refused to leave.
The Bundys say the Hammonds were persecuted because the federal government wants their land. The Bundys accuse the federal government of overreaching, land grabbing and pushing ranchers off their land in Oregon and elsewhere. They have called on militia members from across the nation to join their occupation. Their father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, spearheaded a standoff with the government over grazing rights on U.S. lands in 2014.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Ammon Bundy wouldn't say how many people were occupying the wildlife refuge. He called the group "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom." About a dozen people could be observed at the site.
Bundy said the group's purpose was "to restore and defend" the U.S. Constitution. "We love our country," he said. "We love the people in it. We know that we are struggling to be able to know what to do as a nation, and in many ways we are divided. And we hope that we can restore those things and that we can unite as a people in protecting individuals."
Another group member, Shawna Cox, read from a document asking for an independent investigation of the Hammond's case. Ammon said the government has ignored requests for looking into the "abuse" against the Hammonds.
But LaVoi Finicum, an Arizona rancher who has joined the occupation, said the group is "not making demands."
"We've come here to work," he said. "We did not come here to sit as children and stamp our feet and demand that certain things are met. We're going to go to work."
He said that would entail helping ranchers and loggers "live again as free people."
Group leaders led reporters to a bunk house where the group is sleeping. Inside was a garage area holding canned food, mainly beans, about 20 ramen noodle meals, fruit, potatoes and a large cast iron skillet. The room smelled heavily of smoke and an ash tray sitting between three folding chairs was filled with cigarette butts.
Asked about the potential for violence, militia members said it was highly unlikely.
"America is not going to tolerate another Waco," Jason Patrick said.
The number of anti-government militia groups nationwide grew 37% last year, up from 202 in 2014 to 276, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups.
“The number represents a renewal of growth after several years of declines,’’ the center reported Monday. It said the movement grew "explosively" after President Obama was elected, from 42 groups in 2008 to a peak of 334 in 2011.
Heidi Beirich, director of the center’s Intelligence Project, said the Oregon group was “emboldened’’ by the 2014 grazing-rights clash between Cliven Bundy and the federal government, which Beirich described as “a clear victory’’ for the Bundy ranch.
The FBI said in a release that it is working with local authorities to resolve the Oregon standoff peacefully. Ward, the county sheriff, said protesters claimed to be supporting local ranchers but actually "had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States."
Finicum, a neighbor of Cliven Bundy, said he joined the Oregon occupation because he was tired of watching freedoms "being eroded away."
"It's going to take some time, but come summer we'd love to see these ranchers reclaim their rights," Finicum said.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, who represents Burns in the state House of Representatives, said: "There is certainly always a place for peaceful protest, and I think that this is what Harney County residents who participated in Saturday's parade believe they were doing as they marched.
"I also think that the sheriff and the county and the city are all doing all that they can to manage the Bundys' self-serving, attention-grabbing efforts in a way that prevents Harney County from becoming a rallying cry for every anti-government person in America."
Contributing: Rick Jervis, USA TODAY; Gordon Friedman reports for the (Salem, Ore.) Statesman Journal
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