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Armed Group Takes Over Federal Building Following Protest In Oregon

A small group of armed anti-federalists occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Ore., on Saturday.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that the men were apparently led by Ammon Bundy. He is the son of Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a highly-publicized standoff with the federal government in Nevada over grazing rights.

The day started off with a protest. Militia members marched in support of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond, two ranchers who were convicted of setting federal lands on fire.

OPB reports that as the sun set most of the hundreds of protesters left Burns but a group stayed to take over the refuge. OPB adds:

"A group of five men bundled in coats and scarves fed sagebrush branches into a campfire. Only Ammon spoke to the media, but a few of the men quietly identified themselves as longtime residents of the Burns area and supporters of the Hammonds.

"Asked how many militia members were at the headquarters, Bundy demurred. 'I will not disclose,' he said. 'Operational security.' ...

"There was no sign of law enforcement near the entrance to the refuge, though an Oregon State Police patrol car idled by the side of the road just outside Burns.

" 'We are not hurting anybody or damaging any property. We would expect that they understand that we have given them no reason to use lethal force upon us or any other force,' Bundy said."

On its Facebook page, the Bundy Ranch posted video of Ammon Bundy talking to the press:

Bundy said the men were prepared to "stay as long as it takes." He said he wanted the federal government to end the restrictions it has placed on some federal lands.

"All comfort, all wealth ... comes from the Earth, and we cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point where it puts us in poverty," Bundy said.

OPB reports that the Hammonds plan to report to jail on Monday. They were sentenced to a year or less in prison in 2012 for arson. But federal prosecutors appealed that sentence, saying the two men should have "received the mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for burning federal property."

The government won that appeal in October, and the Hammonds were ordered to begin serving the rest of that five-year sentence on Monday.

Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward told The Oregonian that multiple agencies are "currently working on a solution" to the occupation.

Update at 3:16 p.m. ET. Could Take Months:

During a press conference outside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building, Bundy said his group had a plan and that it could take "several months at the shortest to accomplish."

Bundy said this was a fight about the Constitution. The federal government, he said, has no right over these lands unless the states cede those rights to them.

It's worth noting that the Constitution gives the federal government full power to do what it wishes with lands owned by the United States. (Also, if you're interested in the history of federal land ownership, the Congressional Research Service has a quick primer.)

Ultimately, Bundy concluded, this occupation is intended to give ranchers back rights they believe they possess. For example, the Hammonds' cows should be able to move and graze through the refuge's land as they wish.

"I will say this refuge from its very inception has been a tool of tyranny," Bundy said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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