BURNS, Ore. (AP) — The small group of armed anti-government activists occupying a remote wildlife preserve in Oregon’s high desert gave visitors free access to the snowy site Monday, allowing some local residents and ranchers in to satisfy their curiosity or show support.
The group also appeared to be trying to keep the site tidy, picking up cigarette butts from the ground and keeping vehicle and foot traffic primarily to roads and pathways. Federal authorities made no immediate attempt to retake the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which about two dozen activists seized over the weekend as part of a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.
There appeared to be no urgent reason for federal officials to move in. No one has been hurt. No one is being held hostage. And the refuge is a bleak and forbidding stretch of wilderness about 300 miles from Portland, and it’s the middle of winter.
Some have complained that the government’s response to the situation in Oregon would have been more severe had the occupants been Muslim or other minorities.
But others said from a tactical standpoint, the government’s cautious response would make sense no matter who was holed up in the government building in the reserve.
Meanwhile, the group said it wants an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after the father and son who were ordered back to prison for arson on federal grazing lands reported to a federal facility in California Monday.
The demanded a government response within five days related to the ranchers’ extended sentences.
Ammon Bundy — one of the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a 2014 Nevada standoff with the government over grazing rights — told reporters that Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, were treated unfairly.
The Hammonds were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006, one of which was set to cover up deer poaching, according to prosecutors. They said they lit the fires to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
The men served their original sentences — three months for Dwight and one year for Steven. But an appeals court judge ruled the terms fell short of minimum sentences that require them to serve about four more years.
Their sentences have been a rallying cry for the group, whose mostly male members said they want federal lands turned over to local authorities so people can use them free of U.S. oversight.
The father and son reported to a federal prison Monday in California, said Harney County, Oregon, Sheriff David Ward. He provided no other details.
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the protest group and many locals, including people who want to see federal lands made more accessible, don’t want the activists here, fearing they may bring trouble.
Schools in the small town of Burns, about 30 miles from the refuge, were closed for the week out of concern for student safety.
For the moment, the federal government was doing nothing to remove them, but the FBI said it was monitoring the situation. The White House said President Barack Obama was aware of the situation and hopes it can be resolved peacefully.
The refuge was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect bird populations that had been decimated by plume hunters selling feathers for the hat industry.
It sits in a wide snow-covered valley rimmed by distant mountains and contains lakes and marshland. The preserve has grown over the years to about 300 square miles and surrounds the ranch Dwight Hammond bought with his father in 1964. Dwight Hammond said his family has resisted pressure to sell the ranch as the federal government chipped away at his grazing allotments and increased fees on other lands.
The refuge contains about 10 small buildings, some of which had been entered by the occupying group. Other members of the group blocked the entrance to the headquarters.
The takeover prompted an outcry far beyond Oregon from both those who want to see federal lands opened to more ranching and logging and others who were astounded that private citizens with guns could seize government property without any intervention by law enforcement.
The tactics of the Bundys and the group were condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who is familiar with the Bundys from their standoff in his state, said the group could not continue breaking the law, but that everyone should remain patient.
“These people say we want to return (the land) to the people,” Reid said. “The people have it right now.”
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he hoped the group would “stand down peaceably” with no violent confrontation “sooner rather than later.”
Ammon Bundy said his group had sent a demand for “redress for grievances” to local, state and federal officials. The group, which included a couple of women and some boys and girls Monday, did not release a copy of its demands. Bundy would not say what the group would do if it got no response.
“We have exhausted all prudent measures and have been ignored,” he said.
[sharequote align=”center”]”We have exhausted all prudent measures and have been ignored.”[/sharequote]
At the time of the Bundys’ 2014 Nevada standoff, there were $1.1 million in outstanding grazing fees, and no payments have been made since then. The fees continue to accrue, although Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Bev Winston couldn’t give a specific updated figure on the debt.
The disputes harken back to a long-running struggle over public lands between some Westerners and the federal government, which owns nearly half the land in the West.
In the 1970s, during the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” Nevada and other states pushed for local control over federal land. Supporters of that idea want to open more land available for cattle grazing, mining and timber harvesting.
Opponents say the federal government should administer lands for the widest possible uses, including environmental and recreational.
Bundy said the group plans to stay at the refuge as long as it takes.
Keith Landon, a longtime resident of Burns who works at the Reid Country Store, 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 — a decision that hurt the local logging industry.
“It’s hard to discredit what they’re trying to do out there,” he said. “But I don’t want anybody hurt.”