BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - The leader of a group of self-styled militiamen who seized a remote U.S. wildlife refuge in Oregon said on Tuesday their plan was to help local residents regain their rights from the federal government, and “then we will go home.”
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the small town of Burns have been thrust into the spotlight by the takeover, which began on Saturday and marked the latest protest over federal management of millions of acres (hectares)of land in the West.
“We do have a plan,” protest leader Ammon Bundy told reporters at the refuge. “We see a time coming very soon when the community will begin ... to take that over, so they can claim their own rights, so that they can stand strong enough to defend them. And then we will go home.”
The reaction to the takeover among residents of Burns, about 30 miles (48 km) north of the refuge, has included sympathy for the jailed ranchers from the area whose plight inspired the action, and criticism of the armed protesters.
Ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, who surrendered on Monday to serve longer prison terms for setting fires that spread to federal land, were regulars at a diner in Burns where customers said they feared the federal government wanted to seize ranch lands for its own use.
“The BLM wants that land bad and they’ll probably end up getting it,” said Tim Slate, a butcher who said he had gone out to slaughter the Hammonds’ cattle many times over the years, using an acronym for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “The federal government wants to take over the state of Oregon and turn it into a park.”
Diners voiced skepticism about Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher who along with a large group of armed men stared down federal agents in 2014 when they tried to confiscate his cattle over unpaid grazing fees.
“I don’t think it’s right to take over a public building,” said James Arndt, a retired painter. “I‘m kind of mixed about that.”
‘NOT ABOUT FEAR’
He echoed other residents of the town of 3,000 people about 280 miles (450 km) southeast of Portland, who saw the occupation as the work of outsiders. The Hammonds’ lawyers have sought to dissociate themselves from the occupiers.
But Bundy said some locals had stopped by with food.
“A particular rancher ... brought a very, very good pot of soup that was needed on a late night when we were very hungry,” Bundy told the news conference.
“We’re not about fear, we’re not about force, we’re not about intimidation,” he said. “If the government is bringing that fear and intimidation, it needs to be checked and balanced.”
Early in the occupation, Bundy said many of his supporters were armed, although its members have not been showing weapons in recent days.
Authorities have closed schools for the week in the area out of concerns of possible violence, but the occupation has so far been peaceful.
At the refuge on Tuesday, an entrance sign was draped with U.S. flags that almost completely obscured the logo of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Reporters were allowed to roam outside the dozen or so buildings around the visitor center, which include stone cottages for staff, storage units and other outbuildings, and even a small gas station.
Michael Stettler, 49, said he took time off from work at a hardware store in Lake View, California, to drive up with his dog and visit for a few days because he was curious about whether he was getting the full story from the media.
“I got insight into what life is like as a federal employee: pretty cush!” Stettler said, describing well-heated buildings and amenities including a gym. He said he spent the morning shoveling snow and prizing open a frozen door, and that the night was spent comfortably.
“They’ve got propane and wood stoves for heat,” he said.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward has called on the protesters to go home, and planned to meet with county residents later on Tuesday to discuss their concerns about the situation.
Neither protesters nor authorities have said how many people are involved in the occupation. About a dozen occupiers have been visible at the site.
Federal law enforcement officials have kept their distance, following guidelines instituted to prevent a repeat of deadly standoffs such as those in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas in the early 1990s.
The success of the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch likely emboldened the refuge occupiers, commentators said.
“They won,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.
“The group that’s holed up there in Burns seems to think they’re going to take that same idea to another level: You solve your issues over land usage or grazing fees or whatever by refusing to pay up and then using weapons to run cops off the land.”
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Andy Sullivan and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Victoria Cavaliere in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney