BURNS, OREGON – A protest in support of ranchers in the state of Oregon facing jail time for arson was followed Saturday by an occupation of a building at a national wildlife refuge led by members of a family previously involved in a showdown with the U.S. federal government.
Ammon Bundy told local newspaper The Oregonian that he and two of his brothers were among a group of dozens of people occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
They are there to show support for Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, who have said they lit fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under U.S. federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.
The decision has generated controversy in a remote part of the state. In particular, the Hammonds’ new sentences touched a nerve with far right groups who repudiate U.S. federal authority.
Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Jan. 4 as ordered by the judge.
Ammon Bundy — the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights — and a handful of self-styled militiamen from other states arrived last month in Burns, some 60 miles from the Hammond ranch.
In the U.S., some people who believe the government is too involved in their lives describe themselves as militiamen. While some of them sometimes carry weapons, violent confrontations are rare.
In an email to supporters, Ammon Bundy criticized the U.S. government for a failed legal process.
Ammon Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for militia members to come help him. He said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” where Burns is located. Below the video was this statement: “(asterisk)(asterisk)ALL PATRIOTS ITS TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED.”
In an interview with reporters late Saturday night that was posted on Facebook, Bundy said he and others are occupying the building because “the people have been abused long enough.”
“I feel we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not take a hard stand, we’ll be in a position where we’ll be no longer able to do so,” he said.
Bundy said the group planned to stay at the refuge indefinitely. “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy said. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward told people to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation, the Oregonian reported.
“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,” Ward said in a statement.
Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Saturday night that he had nothing to do with the takeover of the building.
Bundy said his son felt obligated to intervene on behalf of the Hammonds.
“He told me that they were there for the long run. I guess they figured they’re going to be there for whatever time it takes — and I don’t know what that means,” Cliven Bundy said.
Beth Anne Steele, an FBI spokeswoman in Portland, told The Associated Press the agency was aware of the situation at the national wildlife refuge. She made no further comment.