BURNS, Ore. (AP) – Federal authorities kept their distance and made no immediate attempt Monday to retake a wildlife refuge in the remote high desert of Oregon after armed anti-government protesters seized it as part of a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.
The group came to the frozen high desert of eastern Oregon to contest the prison sentences of two ranchers who set fire to federal land, but their ultimate goal is to turn over the property to local authorities so people can use it free of U.S. oversight.
People across the globe have marveled that federal authorities have not moved to take back the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Residents say they have not seen a large presence of officers, and the government’s tactic generally is to monitor the situation from afar but leave them be as long as they don’t show signs of violence.
That’s how federal officials defused a high-profile 2014 standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing rights. Now Bundy’s two sons are leading the push in Oregon.
Ammon Bundy told reporters Monday that the group wants authorities to look into claims that local ranchers have been intimidated by the federal government.
Bundy spoke at the refuge south of Burns, Oregon. He said the group calls itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and has sent a “demand for redress” to local, state and federal officials.
They want a response within five days. Bundy did not say what the group would do if they get no response.
Reporters have seen roughly 20 people at the remote national facility.
The latest dispute traces its roots to the 1970s and the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a move by Western states like Nevada to increase local control over federal land. While ranchers and others complain of onerous federal rules, critics of the push for more local control have said the federal government should administer the public lands for the widest possible uses, including environmental and recreation.
Residents of the tiny town of Burns are concerned about the potential for violence.
Keith Landon, a longtime resident and employee at the Reid Country Store, said he knows local law enforcement officials who fear their kids will be targeted by the group.
“I’m hoping most of it’s just muscle, trying to push,” he said. “But it’s a scary thing.”
If the situation turns violent, Bundy contends that it will be because of the federal government’s actions.
“I mean, we’re here to restore order. We’re here to restore rights, and that can go peacefully and easily,” he said.
The ranchers whose cause has been the rallying cry also reject the group’s support. Dwight and son Steven Hammond were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006. They served their original sentences – three months for Dwight and one year for Steven – but a judge ruled that the terms were too short under federal minimum sentencing laws.
Both men were ordered back to prison for about four years each. They have said they plan to turn themselves in Monday.
Kendra M. Matthews, an attorney for the men, said Monday they will seek clemency from President Obama.
The Bundy brothers say the group plans to stay at the refuge as long as it takes. They declined to say how many people were at the property where several pickup trucks blocked the entrance and armed men wore camouflage and winter gear.
The FBI is working with local and state authorities to “bring a peaceful resolution to the situation,” the bureau said in a statement late Sunday. It said it is the agency in charge and would not release details about the law enforcement response to ensure the safety of officers and those at the refuge.
Some are criticizing the lack of action, saying it is because those occupying the property are white.
Landon, the longtime Burns resident, said he sympathizes with the Bundys’ frustrations. Landon was a logger until the federal government declared the spotted owl a protected species in the 1980s, damaging the local logging industry.
“It’s hard to discredit what they’re trying to do out there. But I don’t want anybody hurt,” he said.
This story has been corrected to show that the Nevada standoff with Cliven Bundy was in 2014, not last year and that the wildlife refuge is south of Burns, not north.
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