PORTLAND, Ore. –– Law enforcement agencies appeared to be taking a low-key approach Sunday toward a group of armed men who seized control of a federal wildlife refuge headquarters in southern Oregon, protesting the federal prosecution of two ranchers.
There were no signs of confrontation at the small building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, which protesters seized Saturday in what they said was a bid to reclaim local control of federally managed land.
"Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation," Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement.
The protesters said they are the vanguard of a national movement to resist the federal government's ownership of vast stretches of land in the West.
The occupation began Saturday after a peaceful rally near Burns, where more than 150 people gathered to support an eastern Oregon ranching family facing jail time for arson.
A small, armed breakaway faction then moved on to the wildlife refuge, which was closed and empty.
The group is apparently led by sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who in 2014 led a standoff against federal agents who sought to collect Bundy's cattle over his $1 million debt to the Bureau of Land Management for grazing fees.
Hundreds of self-styled militiamen flocked to Bundy's ranch and, after pointing weapons at federal agents, ended the standoff without paying the grazing fees or losing their cattle.
At the time, BLM and law enforcement officials worried privately that the standoff would embolden the movement and cement Bundy's status as a movement leader.
"We are not terrorists," Ammon Bundy told CNN on Saturday morning. "We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children."
His father told Oregon Public Broadcasting that he had spoken to his son and it appeared that he and his cohorts were equipped with food and a generator.
"He told me that they were there for the long run. I guess they figured they're going to be there for whatever time it takes _ and I don't know what that means," the elder Bundy said.
Another of Bundy's sons, Ryan, who also appeared to be at the wildlife refuge, told the Oregonian newspaper that the protesters want local control of federal land.
"The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control," he said.
"What we're doing is not rebellious. What we're doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land."
The main body of protesters sought to distance themselves from the breakaway faction, which Ammon Bundy said does not consider itself a militia, and the father and son for whom the protest was held are similarly unaffiliated with the occupation.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, said they set 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 _ Dwight three months, and Steven a year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.
Hammond has said he and his son plan to report to prison Monday in San Pedro, Calif. as ordered, but the decision has generated controversy in a remote part of the state, especially when Ammon Bundy and a few supporters arrived in Burns about a month ago.
The movement that calls for the return of federal lands to state and local government has waxed and waned since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s, which centered on ranchers' rights and the money that could be made from timber harvesting, mining and ranching, if only the federal government didn't forbid such profitable endeavors.
The movement has picked up steam in recent years, led by Utah legislator Ken Ivory, who heads a national organization called the American Lands Council that tries to convince county and state governments to pursue the ownership of federal lands. A watchdog group has accused him of fraud in three states for his use of taxpayer dollars.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a report on the Bundy standoff, said the militiamen and the federal land-return movement are part of the same spectrum.
"Antigovernment extremists have long pushed, most fiercely during Democratic administrations, rabid conspiracy theories about a nefarious New World Order, a socialist, gun-grabbing federal government and the evils of federal law enforcement," the SPLC said in the report.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, incorporated in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, has grown since its inception and presents challenges to the ranching families in the area, who say they are increasingly hemmed in by the federal preserve.
The preserve is in a remote region of south-central Oregon, and the protest overwhelmed the already limited Harney County sheriff's office, which asked the public to stop calling on Saturday because residents were having trouble reaching emergency services.
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