Members of an armed militia organization have gathered at a Grants Pass, Oregon gold mine in preparation for a possible eviction of the mine's owners by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The group, called the Oath Keepers, came to the aid of an Nevada rancher last April during a confrontation with the BLM that caught the attention of prominent right-wing media figures and Republican Party officials.
The crux of the dispute between the owners of Oregon's Sugar Pine Mine, Rick Barclay and George Backes, and the BLM is over whether or not the two men have surface rights to the plot of land, not only mining rights, which are not in dispute. The co-owners say they have rights to both, but the BLM disagrees.
"The claimants had limited public access to the area; begun putting up a house on public land; and had failed to file appropriate mining plans with the BLM," the agency said in a statement. "When the claimants failed to take corrective steps, the BLM issued a Decision and Notice of Noncompliance."
'The ultimate goal of the BLM … it's a land grab.'
Once issued, the miners must either file an appeal of the notice or rectify the complaints.
"I specifically asked Oath Keepers to protect my property and my rights until I got to court," Rock Barclay told television station KDVR. "That's why Oath Keepers is there."
Barclay said he disputes BLM's authority.
"[I]t's a basic property rights issue, of someone claiming ownership of land they can't provide documentation that they have [the] right to control," he said. "The ultimate goal of the BLM … it's a land grab."
Oregon's Oath Keepers of Josephine County are a group of former soldiers and police officers who claim to defend the US Constitution and are affiliated with the national Oath Keepers.
The groups says they responded to the mine owners' request in order to protect protect the property and prevent the BLM from forcing the men off their land. After an hour and a half meeting among the Oath Keeper leadership, they agreed to help the miners by providing armed security.
The Oath Keepers gained national attention after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy enlisted their help in a dispute with the BLM. Bundy refused to pay fees for federal land upon which he grazed his herd of cattle. Following a court order in its favor, the bureau sought to confiscate Bundy's cows. Several militia groups, including the Oath Keepers, came to Bundy's aid and a standoff led to the agency backing down.
The possibility of a similar standoff in Oregon is something that all sides — the Josephine County Sheriff's Department, the BLM, and the Oath Keepers — are trying to downplay.
"This is not a standoff," Oath Keepers spokeswoman Mary Emerick told VICE News, adding that all parties were in regular communication. "The Oath Keepers are acting as private security for the mine. That happening around the clock right now."
The Oath Keepers have posted armed men wearing camouflage at the entrance to the mine.
For their part, the authorities are making it clear that they are not conducting an enforcement action. "The Josephine County Sheriff's Office was informed by the BLM that no enforcement action would be taken by their organization and the claim owner is guaranteed his right to due process," the county sheriff's office said in a statement.
The Oath Keepers are planning protests on Thursday at BLM offices.
In a statement, the agency said: "Due to the expected activity and concern for public and employee safety, the Medford and Grants Pass offices will be closed for public business on Thursday, April 23. Members of the public are encouraged to reschedule planned visits to the offices for that day."
The Oath Keepers' Emerick told VICE News that the militia will remain a presence at the Sugar Pine Mine. "It could take a while, yeah," she said of the legal proceedings. "But we'll be here protecting the Constitution."
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn