The case of two Oregon ranchers headed to prison for illegally setting fires on federal lands has snowballed into a standoff with a group of armed right-wing militiamen, who have occupied the headquarters of a wildlife refuge and said they're willing to use violence if police attempt to remove them from the facility.
The situation began to unfold early Saturday afternoon in the remote city of Burns in southeast Oregon. An estimated 300 protesters, some of them carrying guns, paraded through the city, decrying the prosecution of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven. The two men were convicted of arson for setting fires on their property that spread to the adjacent Malheur wildlife refuge. The younger Hammond, 46, served a year in prison, and his father was sentenced to three months. A judge later ruled that their sentences were too short, and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.
Lawyers for the Hammonds have reportedly said they accept the court's ruling and will report to federal authorities on Monday to begin serving their new sentences. Their cause, however, has been taken up by a loose coalition of right-wing groups led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who led an armed standoff last year against the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over a 20-year legal dispute that involved unpaid cattle grazing fees.
After the protest in Burns, Bundy's group seized the headquarters of the Malheur wildlife refuge, which is located about 30 miles southeast of town. Two other Bundy brothers are also believed to be involved in the occupation. They have called on "patriots" to join them in the fight against the "tyranny" of the federal government. They're vowing to occupy the remote federal outpost for "years" — or at least for as long as it takes for their demands to be heard. They want the federal government to turn the Malheur National Forest over to local ranchers, miners, and loggers for commercial use.
'We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely. This is not a decision we've made at the last minute.'
"The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control," Ryan Bundy said, according to the Oregonian. "What we're doing is not rebellious. What we're doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land."
The group has claimed they have "as many as 100 supporters with them" at the refuge, but when Guardian reporter Jason Wilson visited on Saturday afternoon, he described witnessing fewer than a dozen cars at the facility. Wilson said several men were "openly carrying assault weapons," including one with an AR-15 who denied him entry to the grounds.
Police later cordoned off the area and urged the public to stay away.
"A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution," Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement. "For the time being please stay away from that area ... [and] maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation."
In a video posted to the Bundy Ranch Facebook page, Ammon Bundy said the protest is a "hard stand" against "this taking of people's land and resources." In phone interviews with the Oregonian newspaper, Ammon and Ryan Bundy reportedly said that they would be willing to use their weapons if police tried to oust them from the wildlife refuge.
"The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds," Ammon Bundy said, according to the Oregonian. "We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely. This is not a decision we've made at the last minute."
The Hammonds, who claim the fires they were convicted of setting were intended to limit the growth of invasive plants, have refused to endorse the occupation. "Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family," Hammond family attorney W. Alan Schroeder wrote to the local sheriff, according to CBS.
The case has attracted significant attention on social media, trending under the hashtag #OregonUnderAttack. Other right-wing activists aside from the Bundys have also appropriated the Hammond cause. Ahead of the occupation on Saturday, a video was posted online showing Jon Ritzheimer, an anti-Islam activist and militia member, ranting about the case. Ritzheimer addresses Dwight Hammond and says people "need to take a stand" and fight federal authorities.
"Dwight, do you want die in prison labeled as a terrorist by these oppressors?" Ritzheimer asks. "Or do you want to die out here with us a free man? I want to die a free man."
Follow Atoosa Moinzadeh on Twitter: @amoinzadeh