Protesting the jailing of a 73-year-old rancher and his son, some 100 armed militia men took over a federal building in rural western Oregon and say they will occupy it “as long as it takes” to stop what they see as federal “tyranny.”
Organizers, who include Ammon Bundy and two other sons of a Nevada rancher who battled the government in 2014, are calling on reinforcements from around the country and say they will defend themselves.
The site of the protest is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, about 280 miles east of Portland.
It was touched off by the planned imprisonment on Monday of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who were prosecuted for a controlled burn of 130 acres of leased federal land they claimed was to stop the spread of invasive plants. The burn took place in 2001. Prosecutors said the fire was set to hide poaching. Each of the ranchers face five years in prison.
“We will be here as long as it takes,” said Ammon Bundy, a spokesman for the group and the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who clashed with the feds two years ago.
“We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves,” Ammon Bundy said while issuing a broad appeal for others to come join the occupation in a show of support.
The occupation came shortly after 300 marchers paraded through Burns in support of the Hammonds.
The tense situation now involves the Oregon State Police, the Harney County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward told people to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation.
“A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution,” said ward. “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.”
On his Facebook page Ammon Bundy said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County.”
He told reporters late Saturday that the group was occupying the government 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.
“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy said.
The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It had been closed and unoccupied over the holiday weekend.
Cliven Bundy told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Saturday night that he was not involved in the takeover. He said his sons felt obligated to intervene on behalf of the Hammonds.
“That’s not exactly what I thought should happen, but I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “You know, if the Hammonds wouldn’t stand, if the sheriff didn’t stand, then, you know, the people had to do something. And I guess this is what they did decide to do. I wasn’t in on that.”
He said his son Ammon told him they were there for the long run.
Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Monday as ordered by the judge.
The 73-year-old rancher and his 46-year-old son claim they lit the 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 federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.
This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here,” said Aaron Bundy, standing on a snowy road. “And we’re planning on staying here for several years.”
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established on August 18, 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds,” according to the park’s website.
“The Refuge represents a crucial stop along the Pacific Flyway and offers resting, breeding, and nesting habitat for hundreds of migratory birds and other wildlife,” a statement on the site says. “Many of the species migrating through or breeding here are highlighted as priority species in national bird conservation plans.”
“We are not hurting anybody or damaging any property,” Ammon Bundy told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “We would expect that they understand that we have given them no reason to use lethal force upon us or any other force.”
Watch video statement by Ammon Bundy
Bundy said they will be “bringing the lands up and getting the ranchers back to ranching and the miners back to mining, putting the loggers back to logging, where they could do it under the protection of the people, and not be afraid of this tyranny that has been upon them.”
“Harney County will begin to thrive again,” he said, noting it used to be the wealthiest county in the state and is now the poorest.
“We’re doing this for the people,” Bundy said. “We’re the point of the spear,” urging people to “come out here and stand” with them. He said they have a place to stay and food to offer, adding: “We need you to bring your arms.”
In response to the takeover, local authorities in Burns have announced schools will be closed for the next week.