BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - Many residents of a small Oregon town distanced themselves on Monday from self-styled militiamen who occupied a remote U.S. wildlife refuge centre over the weekend to protest the federal government’s role in managing millions of acres of wild lands.
The anti-government occupation, which began on Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles (50 km) south of the small town of Burns, was the latest skirmish over federal land management in large tracts of the West.
Many in Burns, home to 3,000 people, said they viewed the occupation as mostly, if not entirely, the work of outsiders - a sentiment echoed by Harney County Sheriff David Ward.
“You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County,” Ward told a news conference on Monday, addressing the occupiers at the wildlife refuge.
“That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation,” Ward said. “It is time for you to leave our community, go home to your families, and end this peacefully.”
The sheriff said the event had “significantly impacted” the local community.
A protest leader, Ammon Bundy, earlier told reporters outside the occupied facility that his group had named itself “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and was trying to restore individual rights. Bundy and law enforcement officials declined to say how many people were occupying the centre.
“They (the federal government) are coming down into the states and taking over the land and the resources, putting the people into duress, putting the people into poverty,” Bundy said, wearing a brown hat and flanked by supporters.
About half a dozen occupiers could be seen outside the facility on Monday, with some manning a watchtower and others standing around a vehicle they had used to block the road leading to the building. They chatted quietly among themselves. No one was visibly armed.
No significant law enforcement presence could be seen at the site. The FBI said it was seeking a “peaceful resolution to the situation,” but declined to give details.
Three Obama administration officials said federal authorities had been told to avoid a violent confrontation, in line with official U.S. policy after deadly clashes at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas in the early 1990s.
The occupation is the latest skirmish in the so-called sagebrush rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres (hectares) of land and natural resources in the West, much of it administered by the Interior Department, parent agency of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It followed a demonstration in Burns over the imminent imprisonment of local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond, who were found guilty of setting a series of fires. Through an attorney, they have dissociated themselves from the occupiers.
Ward said the father and son turned themselves in as planned on Monday at a federal prison in California. Their lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Residents interviewed by Reuters said that while the U.S. government could sometimes seem overzealous in enforcing rules on ranchers, it is also a major local employer.
Patrick Wright, a 33-year-old taxi driver who said he knew the Hammonds, said he agreed with the protesters it was unfair they should have to return to prison.
“I get why they’re here,” Wright said of the occupiers. “Taking over the refuge and threatening gun violence is a little extreme, but it’s getting them heard, that’s for sure.”
Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose ranch was the scene of an armed demonstration against federal Bureau of Land Management officials in 2014 that ended with the authorities backing down, citing safety concerns.
That standoff drew hundreds of armed protesters after federal agents sought to seize Bundy’s cattle because he refused to pay grazing fees.
The takeover in Oregon drew criticism on social media, with some users asking if the occupiers would have been treated differently if they had been black or Muslim.
SERIES OF FIRES
The Hammonds were found guilty in 2012 of setting a string of fires, including a 2001 blaze that federal prosecutors said was intended to cover up evidence of deer poaching, that wound up burning 139 acres (56 hectares) of public lands.
The younger Hammond was initially sentenced to 12 months in prison and the father three months, below the federal minimum for arson. In October, a U.S. district judge increased the sentences to five years.
The Hammond ranch borders on the southern edge of the Malheur refuge, a bird sanctuary in eastern Oregon’s arid high desert, about 305 miles (490 km) southeast of Portland.
Both father and son are members of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, or OCA. The group said in a statement on Monday that it would continue to assist and represent them “solely through avenues that are in accordance with the law.”
“OCA does not support illegal activity taken against the government. This includes militia takeover of government property,” said the association’s president, John O’Keeffe.
“Obviously we’re aware of the situation and concerned about it,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation, adding: “This ultimately is a ... local law enforcement matter.”
Reporting by Jim Urquhart and Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton in Washington, and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Writing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Jonathan Oatis, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney
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