A handful of armed militiamen and ranchers are occupying a federal facility near Burns, Oregon, as part of a protest on behalf of two local ranchers who are headed to jail.
It’s hard to know how this episode will end, but it’s easy enough to understand its origins. While the attempted provocation is ostensibly about one particular federal case against ranchers, the full backstory involves a volatile mix of anti-government ideology and industrial greed. And though armed men grab the media’s attention, the story unfolding in Burns should also serve to highlight the stark divide between the habits and ideas of the American ranching community and a minuscule fringe of extremists within that community who are trying to steal the spotlight.
Here’s what you need to know to make sense of the headlines coming out of Oregon:
How did the dispute start?
The controversy here originates with the decision to jail a pair of ranchers in southeastern Oregon under a law created to combat terrorism, in what the ranchers say amounts to punishment for their good-faith efforts to manage land in collaboration with the government.
Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and his 46-year-old son, Steven, are due to report to federal prison on Monday to serve five-year prison terms. The men were convicted by a jury of their peers in 2012 on arson charges stemming from a pair of fires the two admit to setting on their land in 2001 and 2006. But the ranchers and their prosecutors tell two very different stories about those fires.
The Hammonds’ property, which has belonged to the ranching family for generations, interlocks with publicly owned Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, requiring the Hammonds to work together with the BLM to manage the vast area where the Hammonds’ animals graze on a mix of private and federal property.
The Hammonds set a fire in 2001 that ultimately burned 139 acres of BLM land. The ranchers say they began it on their own land with agency approval, but prosecutors say they were in fact seeking to cover up illegal deer hunting on the BLM acreage near their property. A second, much smaller fire in 2006 burned another acre of BLM land during a “burn ban” imposed to allow agency firefighters to combat a blaze caused by lightning.
The Hammonds served time for the fires in 2013. A district judge sentenced Dwight to three months and Steve to 366 days of prison time. But the federal anti-terrorism law that prosecutors used to punish the fires includes mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years for fires that damage public property but cause no injury or death. After a series of appeals, the Hammonds were re-sentenced in October of 2015 to the full five years required by that 1990s statute.
It’s this re-sentencing that prompted ranchers and militiamen from around the western U.S. to descend on Burns and protest the Hammonds’ treatment by prosecutors. A much smaller group of those protesters has since splintered off to seek an open conflict with federal agents by taking over a nearby wildlife facility.
Who came to Burns, and what are they doing there?
In the days before Dwight and Steven were due to report to prison, hundreds of supporters who believe their five-year federal prison sentences are unduly harsh traveled to the area to attend a public rally on their behalf. Multiple reports indicate that about 300 people rallied in Burns this weekend.
Then, on Saturday evening, an armed sub-group of protesters split off to commandeer a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building on a wildlife preserve about 30 miles from Burns. Militiamen led by a Nevada rancher named Ammon Bundy reportedly told local media that 150 armed people were gathered at the facility. Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, whose ranch was the site of a much larger standoff between armed militiamen and federal agents in 2014 amid a dispute over cattle grazing rights.
Reporters who have been near the site, however, say Bundy is exaggerating the real number of occupiers by ten times. And the vast majority of people who rallied in support of the Hammonds earlier in the weekend are not participating in the would-be standoff that Bundy and about a dozen other armed men are seeking to provoke.
What building did the militiamen take over? Who works there? Are they safe?
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal wildlife preserve, is located about half an hour south from Burns near Malheur Lake. It extends in a wishbone shape south and west from the lake itself. Militia members have taken over the tile-roofed stone cottage on the south shore of the lake that serves as headquarters for the refuge.
The Audubon Society describes the Malheur preserve as “one of the premiere sites for birds and birding in the U.S.” The group notes that it is a critical link in the migratory pattern of multiple species and “regularly supports hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and tens of thousands of shorebirds, including a significant proportion of the total populations of several species.” President Theodore Roosevelt established the refuge in 1908 after hunters nearly exterminated multiple species that gathered there by the thousands during the migratory season.
Fish & Wildlife employees were not on hand when the militia group arrived. An email obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting says that all Malheur Lake staff are safely out of harm’s way.
The surrounding area is extremely rural. Harney County, where Burns is located, has a population density of less than one person per square mile — lower than Wyoming and Alaska, and microscopic compared to Oregon’s overall density of roughly 40 people per square mile.
How are public authorities responding so far?
Local law enforcement has asked everyone to stay away from the site of the militia occupation, and Harney County schools will remain closed this week pending the resolution of the situation. Local reports indicate that law enforcement officers are in the area, but are being cautious. As of publication, no officers have approached the facility. Federal law enforcement officials are in charge on the scene, according to an email obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
What do the people of Burns think of what’s happening in their community?
On the Friday night prior to the rally, local residents of Burns invited militia members to a meeting to discuss their concerns about the group’s plans. “I am scared to death,” a local woman named Shonna Mckay told the newcomers. It’s unclear whether Ammon Bundy attended that meeting.
Bundy has told reporters the takeover was planned well in advance. But The Oregonian’s report from Friday’s meeting gives no indication that locals were told anything about Bundy’s scheme. Bundy says he tried to recruit about 10 local residents to join the armed occupation, but was rebuffed.
And while this weekend’s 300-person march reportedly included local residents of Burns who object to the federal response to the Hammonds’ fires, both locals and more far-flung supporters of the Hammonds say they are appalled by Bundy’s actions. An Oregon man named Dave Duquette told Oregon Public Broadcasting the Bundy standoff “is going to overshadow the good” of the peaceful protest. “There’s a radical fringe, that, although I do understand where they’re at, they’ve taken it a little too far,” Duquette said.
A Washington rancher named Jim Gillmore said he had come prepared for a standoff himself, but abandoned that plan upon learning the Hammonds intended to surrender themselves as ordered. “The Hammonds have expressed a desire to go ahead and be incarcerated. Had they expressed otherwise, this might be a different kind of a meeting today,” Gillmore said.
What divides the occupying militia members from the rest of the Hammonds’ supporters?
While frustrations and friction between federal land management agencies and ranchers are widespread, the vast majority of private citizens from communities affected by these issues do not share the radicalism that animates Bundy’s armed occupiers.
There are about 16,000 American ranchers who graze animals on BLM lands. Only 458 of them have not paid their grazing fees for use of that land. Even among those delinquents, the vast majority are two months or less past due on their fees, which are $1.69 per animal per month. Scofflaws like Cliven Bundy, who has racked up a debt of over $1 million to taxpayers from unpaid grazing fees and subsequent trespassing fines, are extremely rare.
If most ranchers adhere to the laws around the management of public lands, what’s behind these small, armed factions challenging that system?
Over the past several years, a network of politicians and militiamen have been trying to roll back federal authority over public lands with increasing intensity, as documented by the Center for Western Priorities (CWP). That group describes Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R) as the lynchpin of a growing movement in statehouses across the western United States. The idea that federal authority over public lands is illegitimate has caught the attention of a variety of extremist groups that are convinced the government will sooner or later turn arms against its own people.
The movement has two main channels: foot soldiers like Bundy and the Oath Keepers, who view themselves as the first line of armed resistance against government tyranny, and capitalists, who know that federal land rules are keeping valuable minerals in the ground. Bundy and his ilk have been involved in multiple other lower-profile provocations with federal agents over the past few years across western states. In that same time frame, the CWP has documented dozens of legislative efforts to loosen federal control of public lands, which would ultimately allow state lawmakers to start dishing out mining and drilling permits in wilderness areas that have been preserved by and for American taxpayers for hundreds of years.
In a final bit of irony, this latest militia dust-up stems from a law created in direct response to the perception that right-wing domestic terrorism was surging during the Clinton years.
The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) created the five-year mandatory minimum sentences that the Hammonds face for arson on public property. That law sailed through a Republican Congress in the wake of the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. McVeigh and Nichols were inspired to that murderous act in part by the fatal standoffs between armed resistors and federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the early 1990s, where multiple people died and law enforcement were blamed for mishandling and escalating the situations.
Had anyone been killed by the fires the Hammonds set, they could have faced life imprisonment or even the death penalty under the AEDPA. But the rigidity of punishments that Bundy’s armed men are protesting today was established in law partly in response to the actions of their ideological forebears.
This post originally said that BLM grazing fees are $1.35 per animal per day. They rose to $1.69 per animal in 2015, and are assessed monthly not daily.