BURNS, OREGON – Members of self-styled militia groups met on Friday with armed protesters occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, pledging support for their cause, if not their methods, and offering to act as a peacekeeping force in the weeklong standoff over land rights.
The group occupied the refuge on Jan. 2 in protest at the jailing of two local ranchers convicted of arson, and is calling for the government to turn over federal land in the area to the people.
During the 30-minute meeting at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a leader of the occupation, Ammon Bundy, told about a dozen representatives of such groups as Pacific Patriots Network, Oath Keepers and 3% that he had no immediate plans to abandon the siege.
“I was asked to do this by the Lord,” said Bundy, a Mormon, as some of the militia members nodded in understanding. “I did it how he told me to do it.”
Earlier on Friday, the Pacific Patriots Network called on its members to establish a safety perimeter around the refuge in remote southeastern Oregon to prevent a “Waco-style situation” from unfolding. In 1993, federal agents laid siege to a compound belonging to the Branch Davidians religious sect in Waco, Texas. The 51-day standoff ended in a gunbattle and fire. Four federal agents and more than 80 members of the group died, including 23 children.
The Pacific Patriots Network has previously said that while it agrees with Bundy’s grievances on land rights, it does not support the occupation, a position leader Brandon Rapolla reiterated during the meeting.
Bundy thanked Rapolla and handed him a small roll of bills, which he said came from donations.
“We’re friends, but we’re operating separately,” Rapolla, a former U.S. Marine who helped defend the Bundys in 2014 in their standoff with the U.S. government at their Nevada ranch, said in an earlier interview.
The militia members are not joining the occupation but are sleeping in their vehicles or in hotels in Burns, he said.
Rapolla said he had also taken sausage McMuffins to FBI agents who are stationed at nearby Burns Municipal Airport to monitor the occupation and had coffee with deputies from the county sheriff’s office on Thursday.
The meetings were friendly, he said, and he told them that they were there to make neither side escalates the dispute.
“That’s really the point of militias — it’s community involvement,” Rapolla said. “If something happens in your community, that’s what militias are for.”
Some two dozen armed protesters have occupied the headquarters of the refuge, the latest incident in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the U.S. West.
The move followed a demonstration in support of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were returned to prison this past week for setting fires that spread to federal land.
A lawyer for Hammond family has said that the occupiers do not speak for the family.
Ammon Bundy met briefly with Harney County Sheriff David Ward on Thursday but rejected the lawman’s offer of safe passage out of the state to end the standoff.
During a news conference on Friday morning, Bundy seemed to soften his position, saying, “We will take that offer, but not yet, and we will go out of this county and out of this state as free men.”
Following Bundy’s news conference, a lands right activist opposed to the occupation spoke to the media.
“This is about furthering an extremist right-wing agenda,” Barrett Kaiser, a Montana resident and a representative of the Center for Western Priorities said, as supporters of Bundy tried to interrupt him and argue with him. “They need to be charged and prosecuted.”
Local residents have expressed a mixture of sympathy for the Hammond family, suspicion of the federal government’s motives and frustration with the occupation.
Federal law enforcement agents and local police have so far kept away from the occupied site, maintaining no visible presence outside the park in a bid to avoid a violent confrontation.