BURNS, Ore. – An occupation by armed protesters of a national wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon started out with demands that two jailed ranchers be freed and that the federal government relinquish 300 square miles to local control for ranching, mining, logging and other uses. It has stretched on for more than a month.
WHAT'S GOING ON AT THE REFUGE NOW?
The last four occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge said they will turn themselves after the FBI surrounded the site Wednesday night. The holdouts argued with a negotiator and yelled at law enforcement officers in armored vehicles to back off. The tense standoff between law enforcement officers and the four occupiers played out on the Internet via a phone line being livestreamed by an acquaintance of occupier David Fry. Refuge occupier Sean Anderson said late Wednesday he spoke with the FBI and that he and three other holdouts will turn themselves in at a nearby FBI checkpoint at 8 a.m. Thursday. Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, said in a statement the situation had reached a point where it "became necessary to take action" to ensure the safety of all involved. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore spoke with the occupiers over the phone and said she was travelling to the refuge area to help end the standoff. Fiore, a Republican from Las Vegas, had already travelled to Oregon to meet with jailed group leader Ammon Bundy's attorney.
HOW DID THIS SITUATION BEGIN?
On Jan. 2, a protest occurred in Burns, Oregon, amid mounting tension over the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond. Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires. The two were convicted three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year. But in October, a federal judge in Oregon ruled their terms were too short under U.S. law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each. A group of armed protesters broke away from the event in Burns and traveled 30 miles south to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their demands included the freeing of the jailed ranchers and that the wildlife refuge be turned over to local control.
WHAT WAS THE GROUP'S GOAL?
The occupiers attempted to tap into frustration, particularly in Harney County, among people who make a living off federal public land they see as being shut down as more emphasis is placed on landscapes that have value as functioning ecosystems and as places to hike, fish and recreate. The long-dominant uses of ranching, logging and mining now have to compete with other groups who have a different set of values. That has led to grazing and land-use restrictions, altering a system that has sustained rural areas for generations.
WHY HARNEY COUNTY?
Occupation leader Ammon Bundy often repeated a catchphrase that "Harney County is the place and these are the people." The county has in fact been in an economic tailspin for decades, one of the biggest blows the closing of a lumber mill many blame on what they say are overly restrictive policies by the U.S. Forest Service. The occupiers considered the wildlife refuge itself prime cattle grazing land and planned to open it up this spring for cattle.
WHAT DID BUNDY ACCOMPLISH?
Bundy called for ranchers to renounce federal grazing permits at a well-publicized event on Jan. 23 at the refuge, but only one rancher from New Mexico took part in the event. The Hammonds distanced themselves from the armed occupation, and local Harney County leaders, particularly Sheriff Dave Ward and Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, voiced strong opposition to the occupation. Bundy and other group leaders were on their to a community meeting Jan. 26 north of the refuge when authorities set up a road block and arrested Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and others. Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, the group's spokesman, was killed in a confrontation with the FBI and Oregon State Police on the remote road. Bundy and others arrested in conjunction with the standoff face felony charges of conspiracy to impede federal officials in their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats.