A group of armed protesters have taken over a building in a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land, a spokesman for the group told CNN.
The protesters occupied part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns after a march supporting Dwight and Steven Hammond, two ranchers who are convicted of arson.
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.
‘We are not terrorists’
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.”
What the protesters want
When asked what it would take for the armed protesters to leave, Bundy did not offer specifics.
“We are using the wildlife refuge as a place for individuals across the United States to come and assist in helping the people of Harney County claim back their lands and resources,” he said.
“The people will need to be able to use the land and resources without fear as free men and women. We know it will take some time.”
He did not explicitly call on authorities to commute the prison sentences for the Hammonds, who are scheduled to report to prison on Monday. But he said their case illustrates officials’ “abuse” of power.
“Now that people such as the Hammonds are taking a stand and not selling their ranches, they are being prosecuted in their own courts as terrorists and putting them in prison for five years,” Bundy said.
He said the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has taken over the space of 100 ranches since the early 1900s.
“They are continuing to expand the refuge at the expense of the ranchers and miners,” Bundy said.
He also said Harney County, in southeastern Oregon, went from one of the state’s wealthiest counties to one of the poorest.
CNN has not independently corroborated Bundy’s claims.
“I want to emphasis that the American people are wondering why they can’t seem to get ahead or why everything is costing more and you are getting less, and that is because the federal government is taking and using the land and resources,” Bundy said.
“And if it is continued, it will put the people in poverty.”
What the feds say
Acting U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams of Oregon gave a starkly different perspective on the arson case.
His office declined to comment on the situation at the wildlife refuge Saturday, but cited an opinion piece written by Williams in the Burns Times Herald last month defending the federal prosecutors’ actions in the Hammonds’ case.
“Five years ago, a federal grand jury charged Dwight and Steven Hammond with committing arson on public lands and endangering firefighters,” Williams wrote for the newspaper. “Steven Hammond was also found guilty of committing a second arson in 2006.”
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 jury was neither asked if the Hammonds were terrorists, nor were defendants ever charged with or accused of terrorism,” Williams wrote. “Suggesting otherwise is simply flat-out wrong.”