Ranchers occupy Oregon wildlife reserve to defend land-use rights
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 1/04/16, 11:34 am
The isolated Western town of Burns, Ore., waits in worry today over what might happen next between the federal government and angry ranchers taking a stand for land rights.
Claiming to be an armed militia, an unknown number of people have occupied a government building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns. The group, led by a ranching family known for its gripe with the feds, says it is taking over the wildlife refuge to allow local ranchers, hunters, fishermen, loggers, and miners to use it to support their families. The militiamen will stay as long as necessary, their leaders told reporters.
The dispute goes back generations to when western states joined the union and the federal government took possession of the land. Ranchers and others could get permits for water use and cattle grazing. Over time, the government tightened restrictions on land use in the name of protecting the environment, limiting locals’ ability to make a living off the land.
“The end goal here is that we are here to restore the rights to the people here so that they can use the land and resources. All of them,” said Ryan Bundy, one of the militia leaders.
Bundy and others came to Burns last weekend to march in support of a local ranching family. Father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of arson three years ago for burning fires on federal land. The Hammonds say they started a fire on their own property to destroy an invasive plant species and the flames inadvertently spread. But witnesses testified Steven Hammond handed out matches and told relatives to “light up the whole country on fire.” Steven Hammond served a year in prison and his father did three months.
In October, a federal appeals court ruled the Hammonds’ sentences did not meet the federal five-year minimum and ordered them returned to prison. The Hammonds are scheduled to turn themselves in today.
Only some of the protesters who came to Burns to support the Hammonds joined the Bundy family in occupying the wildlife reserve. The Bundys rose to prominence in the land-use movement in 2014, when patriarch Cliven Bundy gathered hundreds of supporters to stop the government from rounding up his cattle in Nevada. His sons, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, say they came to Burns with a plan to occupy the federal land and hand it over to local authorities who will manage its use with the interest of nearby families in mind.
An attorney for the Hammond family said the Bundys do not speak for them. The FBI has descended on Burns and is working with local authorities to try to bring about a peaceful end to the standoff. The Bundys insist they want the same, but they will not back down until their demands are met. They plan to stay as long as it takes.
“This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute,” Ammon Bundy said.