(Reuters) - Self-styled militia members who seized federal property in rural Oregon in an effort to galvanize opposition to the U.S. government appear to have made a tactical error - potential allies say they picked the wrong battle.
As armed anti-government activists occupied a snowy wildlife refuge for a third day to call attention to a land-use dispute, militia leaders from similar groups across the country criticized the seizure of federal land and a building.
The protesters have said they aim “to restore and defend the Constitution” to protect the rights of ranchers and ignite a national debate about states’ rights and federal land-use policy they hope could ultimately force the federal government to release tracts of Western land.
Their occupation of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge comes as the number of paramilitary groups is on the rise in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group that tracks their numbers.
But the latest call to arms appears to have failed to resonate with like-minded groups whose support would be crucial for creating a coalition of armed militia members substantial enough to thwart a law enforcement operation.
“There’s a better way to go about things,” said Brandon Curtiss, president of Three Percent of Idaho, a militia group that has been involved in the dispute. “If you want to make a change like that, you need to get the county citizens behind you to go through the proper channels.”
The protesters have rallied behind Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who were found guilty of arson on public land near their property. They were initially sentenced to 12 months in prison, below the federal minimum for arson, but a U.S. judge raised the sentences to five years.
The Hammonds, who turned themselves in as planned on Monday at a federal prison in California, have said they do not support the protesters or their leader, Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven Bundy, was at the center of a 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights in Nevada that ended with federal agents backing down in the face of about 1,000 armed militiamen, many on horseback.
The Pacific Patriot Network, an umbrella group for militias in the region, said it did not support seizing federal property even if it understood the underlying frustration with the federal government. “This land use issue is decades old and it’s boiling up in frustration. That’s what you’re seeing,” spokesman Joseph Rice said.
The Oath Keepers, another paramilitary group that participated in the 2014 Bundy ranch dispute in Nevada, also distanced itself from the latest standoff.
Some militia leaders said Bundy was using the dispute to provoke the federal government with little regard for the local community.
“Here you have a guy who believes he’s on a mission from God. What the Hammonds want and what the community wants is immaterial,” said Mike Vanderboegh, a founder of the III Percent Movement, which draws its name from the notion that only 3 percent of Americans actively participated in the Revolutionary War.
Vanderboegh and other leaders said they worried Bundy would provoke a violent response from the U.S. government similar to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that ended in the deaths of 76 people.
Three Obama administration officials said federal authorities had been told to avoid a violent confrontation, in line with official U.S. policy after the deadly clashes at Waco and in 1992 at Ruby Ridge, Idaho
Armed U.S. paramilitary groups, which had been on the wane since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have seen their ranks swell in recent years, driven by fears among the far right that President Barack Obama will threaten gun ownership and erode local rights.
The movement has also been energized by confrontations between ranchers, miners and federal regulators in the Western United States, where the government owns vast stretches of land.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are 276 active militia groups today, one-third more than before last year’s standoff.
The latest incident began after militia groups from Oregon and Idaho staged a peaceful march in the nearby city of Burns on Saturday to protest what they see as heavy-handed management by bureaucrats with little interest in local concerns.
Other militia leaders declined to question Bundy’s motives but said he stood little chance of getting the federal government to back down.
“If you want me to demonize this guy, I won’t do it,” said Bob Wright, a commander of the New Mexico Militia.
“But I wish to hell he hadn’t done this,” he said.
Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Cooney