BURNS, OREGON/WASHINGTON – A standoff at a remote U.S. wildlife center in Oregon rolled into a fourth day on Tuesday with self-styled “militiamen” vowing to press on with the protest targeting the U.S. government even as local officials told the group to go home.
Saturday’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon, was spurred by the imprisonment of two ranchers for setting fires that spread to federal land.
The occupation marked the latest protest over federal management of public land in the West, long seen by political conservatives in the region as an intrusion on individual freedom and property rights.
Protest leader Ammon Bundy, whose father’s ranch in Nevada was the scene of an armed standoff against federal land managers in 2014, said his group had named itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and was defending the Constitution and personal liberty against the federal government.
A Twitter page under Bundy’s name said the group had no intention of leaving the refuge until its conditions are met.
The protesters have said they aim “to restore and defend the Constitution” to protect the rights of ranchers and start a national debate about states’ rights and federal land-use policy that they hope will force the federal government to release tracts of Western land.
Many residents in Burns, a town of some 3,000 people about 280 miles (451 km) southeast of Portland, viewed the occupation as the work of outside agitators.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward, in a statement on behalf of himself and County Judge Steven Grasty on Monday, asked group members to stand down.
“It is time for you to leave our community, go home to your families, and end this peacefully,” Ward said.
Both protesters and authorities have declined comment on how many people are involved in the occupation. About a half dozen people have been visible manning a roadblock and fire watchtower at the site.
The FBI said it was working with state and local law enforcement for a peaceful resolution and federal law enforcement officials have kept their distance from the wildlife refuge, which is closed to visitors. They are following U.S. policy guidelines instituted to prevent such standoffs from turning deadly as they did in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, in the early 1990s.
The ranchers whose cause Bundy’s group has embraced — Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven — surrendered to federal authorities in California on Monday after being resentenced to longer prison terms for arson.
The 2014 standoff at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy, Ammon’s father, ended with federal officials backing down, allowing the rancher to keep his livestock without paying fees. That outcome, observers said, emboldened the group to occupy the refuge.
“They forced the federal government at gunpoint to stand down. They won,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.
“The group that’s holed up there in Burns seems to think they’re going to take that same idea to another level: You solve your issues over land usage or grazing fees or whatever by refusing to pay up and then using weapons to run cops off the land.”
The occupation reflects a decades-old dispute over land rights in the United States, where local communities have increasingly sought to take back federal land.
While the standoff in rural Oregon was prompted by the jailing of two ranchers convicted of arson, experts say the issue at the core of the dispute runs much deeper and concerns grazing or timber rights as well as permits to work mines on government land in Western states.
“The problem that we are seeing … is how do you manage people who treat the land as though it was their own, even though it was never their own,” said Gerald Torres, a law professor at Cornell University.
“They were merely given a use right rather than an ownership right,” he added. “They view federal managers as somehow overlords, or people who actually do not work the land.”
Federal land ownership in the United States is largely concentrated in the West, where the government overall controls just over half of territory in 13 states, according to government records.
In Oregon, nearly 53 percent of the land is federally owned, while in Alaska the figure stands at 61.2 percent and in Nevada at nearly 85 percent.
“This western concentration has contributed to a higher degree of controversy over land ownership and use in that part of the country,” according to a 2014 congressional report.
The report adds that while in the 19th century, the federal government enacted many laws to encourage settlement in the West, the 20th century was marked by a movement to retain federal land.
The shift has not gone down well in many states, including Utah, which in recent years have been pushing for the federal government to turn over public lands.
Adding to locals’ resentment in these states are attempts by federal authorities in recent decades to abide by environmental regulations, which has led to more restrictions on mining, grazing and ranching rights.
Frustration boiled over at the weekend in Oregon where a loose-knit group of farmers, ranchers and survivalists took over a wildlife refuge near the town of Burns to support two local ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fire to federal land.
However, the ranchers themselves have distanced themselves from the armed activists who call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as have many locals.
“It’s anarchy,” Len Vohs, a former mayor of Burns, told the Washington Post.
“What we have here is old-style thinking, that might is right.”
But while Vohs and others disagree with the tactics used by the Oregon activists, they say they reflect mounting frustration at what many view as excessive government control over people’s fate.
Torres recalled the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 80s, a movement that sought major changes to federal land control and that was supported by Ronald Reagan.
“When the agriculture and ranching markets are stressed, any effort to raise the grazing fees or even collect the grazing fees seems like an attack,” Torres said.
“That’s combined with efforts to restrict grazing to protect endangered species, or to restrict how much water you can take off the stream.”