PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Ammon Bundy, who led an armed occupation of a U.S. wildlife center in Oregon earlier this year, testified in federal court on Thursday that his hostility toward federal land ownership was shaped by his religious faith and “natural laws.”
Taking the witness stand for a third day at his conspiracy trial in U.S. District Court in Portland, Bundy delved further into the ideology he said was behind the forcible takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a band of militants in January.
Bundy told jurors that his group seized the refuge in rural eastern Oregon not only to protest what they saw as overreach by the U.S. government but to show how public lands should be entrusted to private citizens according to an ancient, divinely inspired set of doctrines.
“These principles, they’re not something that comes and goes,” Bundy, 41, said under questioning from his attorney. “They’re natural laws that we were teaching.”
During a brief, heated cross-examination, federal prosecutor Ethan Knight questioned how Bundy could disdain federal land management while owning a truck repair business that once received a $530,000 loan from the Small Business Administration, a federal agency.
Bundy asserted he did not fully understand that the loan he received came from the SBA, since he obtained it with the help of a private bank.
“I recall I got it through that, but I’m not sure what that means,” Bundy said.
Dressed in a blue-and-pink jail jumpsuit, Bundy expounded on his view that the refuge could be legitimately confiscated from the government through an obscure mechanism of property law called “adverse possession,” involving the taking of land that is idle or in need of improvement.
He also detailed aborted plans to track down property deeds he said would have allowed private citizens to resume ranching and other activities on the refuge and other federal lands in the area.
“We were well on our way,” Bundy testified. “We felt we had a really good start to this.”
Bundy has said the immediate trigger for the 41-day refuge occupation was outrage over two Oregon ranchers being resentenced to longer prison terms for arson convictions.
But he said the Malheur siege, like a separate 2014 armed standoff with U.S. authorities he took part in at his father’s ranch in Nevada, was part of a larger protest against federal control of millions of acres (hectares) of public lands across the West.
Bundy, his brother Ryan and five others involved in the Malheur takeover are charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force, as well as with possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property.
At the conclusion of their trial in Oregon, the brothers and their father, Cliven Bundy, face assault, conspiracy and other charges stemming from the 2014 confrontation in Nevada.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney