3 Things You Need to Know About the Crisis in Oregon Right Now

January 3rd 2016

Alex Mierjeski

A band of armed militiamen broke into and took over the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon Saturday evening following a larger protest against the government's prosecution of two ranchers accused of burning federal land there. 

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The occupation is the latest effort by hard-line protesters who say the federal government should return control of land to the states for local use — a struggle embodied by the prosecution of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond. Here are the three main takeaways from this ongoing story so far:

1. Armed militiamen claiming to uphold the Constitution took over a wildlife refuge building. 

It is not immediately clear how many militia members are occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building — an outpost controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service— though some members told the Oregonian they plan to be there for years in protest. Militia members told the paper that the building represents the unjust federal control of land that would otherwise be controlled by states, and used by local farmers, ranchers, miners, and loggers. 

"The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds," Ammon Bundy, one of the occupiers and the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy — who was in an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 — told the paper. "We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely," he said. "This is not a decision we've made at the last minute." 

2. A land use case involving the federal government sparked the protest. 

The takeover followed a protest of the federal prosecution of two Burns, Ore. ranchers, Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, scheduled to begin a jail sentence on Monday. The ranchers are being prosecuted for a routine field burn that spiraled out of control, eventually scorching about 130 acres on land leased from the government. Federal prosecutors say the burn was arson meant to cover up illegal poaching activity, but the Hammonds say they were trying to stymie the growth of invasive plants to prevent wildfires, according to news reports.

The ranchers served time for the burn, but a federal judge recently ruled that their sentence was not long enough under federal law. 

3. Militiamen want the Hammonds' case to be dropped, and for the feds to hand back land. 

The militiamen told the Oregonian they were not out to hurt anyone, but would not rule out using violence to stand their ground. Law enforcement has kept a notably low profile throughout the affair, with the Harney County Sheriff telling the paper that "multiple agencies [are] working on a solution."

"Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation," the sheriff added.

The group is demanding that Hammonds be released from jail, and that the federal government relinquish control of the Malheur National Forest in southeastern Oregon.  


Ryan Bundy, another relative of the Nevada rancher, told the Oregonian the group was seeking to reclaim land controlled by the federal government, and turn it over to local loggers, miners, and ranchers.

"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 militia reportedly also had plans to occupy a closed wildland fire station near the town of Frenchglen. The occupation represents a broader push by the group to take a stand against what they see as unjust federal regulation of rural land.

"We went to the local communities and presented it many times and to many different people," Ammon Bundy told the Oregonain. "They were not strong enough to make the stand. So many individuals across the United States and in Oregon are making this stand. We hope they will grab onto this and realize that it's been happening."

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