The Bundy family of Nevada joined with hard-core militiamen Saturday to take over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, vowing to occupy the remote federal outpost 50 miles southeast of Burns for years.
The occupation came shortly after an estimated 300 marchers – militia and local citizens both – paraded through Burns to protest the prosecution of two Harney County ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who are to report to prison on Monday.
Among the occupiers is Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and two of his brothers. Militia members at the refuge claimed they had as many as 150 supporters with them. The refuge was closed and unoccupied for the holiday weekend.
In phone interviews from inside the occupied building Saturday night, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, said they are not looking to hurt anyone. But they would not rule out violence if law enforcement tries to remove them, they said, though they declined to elaborate.
“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy said.
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” he added. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
“We will do whatever it takes to maintain our freedom,” he said.
Government sources told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the militia also was planning to occupy a closed wildland fire station near the town of Frenchglen. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management posts crews there during the fire season.
Law enforcement officials so far have not commented on the situation. Oregon State Police, the Harney County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI were involved.
Ammon Bundy had a video posted on his Facebook page calling on patriots from across the country to report to the refuge – with their weapons.
Pennies In ProtestMarchers pause outside the entrance to the Harney County Sheriff’s Office to toss pennies. The coins were meant to symbolize citizens buying back their government
The dramatic turn came after other militia groups had tried to damp down community concerns they meant trouble.
Brandon Curtiss, a militia leader from Idaho, told The Oregonian/OregonLive he knew nothing about the occupation. He helped organize Saturday’s protest and was at the Harney County Fairgrounds with dozens of other militia for a post-parade function.
The occupation is being led by hard-core militia who adopted the Hammond cause as their own.
Ammon Bundy met with Dwight Hammond and his wife in November, seeking a way to keep the elderly rancher from having to surrender for prison. The Hammonds professed through their attorneys that they had no interest in ignoring the order to report for prison.
Ammon Bundy said the goal is to turn over federal land to local ranchers, loggers and miners. He said he met with 10 or so residents in Burns on Friday to try to recruit them, but they declined.
Burns Protest Marchers including militia and local residents Saturday head for the Harney County Courthouse as part of a protest against government.
“We went to the local communities and presented it many times and to many different people,” he said. “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.”
Among those joining Bundy in the occupation are Ryan Payne, U.S. Army veteran, and Blaine Cooper. Payne has claimed to have helped organize militia snipers to target federal agents in a standoff last year in Nevada. He told one news organization the federal agents would have been killed had they made the wrong move.
He has been a steady presence in Burns in recent weeks, questioning people who were critical of the militia’s presence. He typically had a holstered sidearm as he moved around the community.
At a community meeting in Burns Friday, Payne disavowed any ill intentions.
“The agenda is to uphold the Constitution. That’s all,” he said.
Cooper, another militia leader, said at that meeting he participated in the Bundy standoff in Nevada.
“I went there to defend Cliven with my life,” Cooper said.
Ian K. Kullgren of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed to this report.
Peaceful protest followed by Oregon wildlife refuge action
By GOSIA WOZNIACKA
BURNS, Ore. (AP) — A peaceful protest Saturday in support of an Oregon ranching family facing jail time for arson was followed shortly afterward by an occupation of a building at a national wildlife refuge.
Ryan Payne, a U.S. Army veteran from Montana, told The Oregonian (http://is.gd/bK7d4E ) he was among a group occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
An Idaho militia leader who helped organize the earlier march said he knew nothing about activities after a parade of militia members and local residents in Burns walked past the sheriff’s office and the home of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven.
Some local residents feared the Saturday rally would involve more than speeches, flags and marching. But the only real additions to that list seemed to be songs, flowers and pennies.
As marchers reached the courthouse, they tossed hundreds of pennies at the locked door. Their message: civilians were buying back their government. After the march passed, two girls swooped in to scavenge the pennies.
A few blocks away, Hammond and his wife Susan greeted marchers, who planted flower bouquets in the snow. They sang some songs, Hammond said a few words, and the protesters marched back to their cars.
Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Jan. 4 as ordered by the judge.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit the fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.
The decision has generated controversy in a remote part of the state.
In particular, the Hammonds’ new sentences touched a nerve with far right groups who repudiate federal authority. The son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights, was among those organizing opposition to the Hammonds’ new sentence.
Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, and a handful of militiamen from other states arrived last month in Burns, some 60 miles from the Hammond ranch.
In an email to supporters, Ammon Bundy criticized the U.S. government for a failed legal process.