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Harney County sheriff says occupiers trying to 'overthrow' county and federal government

PORTLAND — A group of armed activists who have seized control of part of a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon appear to be aiming “to overthrow the county and federal government,” a local law enforcement official said Sunday.

Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said authorities from “several organizations” are working to peacefully resolve the standoff, which began Saturday when an unknown number of armed activists occupied an uninhabited building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles outside the town of Burns, Ore.

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” Ward said in a statement Sunday.

There were no signs of confrontation Sunday at the small refuge headquarters building, seized in what activists said was a protest against the federal prosecution of two ranchers and a bid to reclaim local control of federally managed land.

“We ask that people stay away from the refuge for their safety,” Ward said.

“At this time, we do not have any information that any other areas in Harney County are in immediate danger,” he said.

County officials announced that schools would remain closed through the week pending a resolution.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the FBI was leading the law enforcement response, in coordination with the Oregon State Police and local law enforcement authorities. Wyden said he was himself heading to meet with local residents.

“I understand why rural Oregonians are so frustrated about this economy,” Wyden said a news conference. “But the next step from frustration is not to walk off a cliff, misled by some outsiders who seem willing to take the law into their own hands.”

Those leading what amounts to an armed occupation at the small, remote building say they are the vanguard of a national movement to resist the government’s ownership of vast stretches of land in the West.

The move began Saturday after a peaceful rally near Burns, where more than 150 people gathered in support of the ranchers who are facing additional jail time for arson.

A small, armed breakaway faction then moved on the wildlife refuge, which was closed and empty.

Dozens of protesters who marched through the town of Burns called for the federal government to back down in its enforcement of public lands regulations.

“We’re here to stand up for our brothers and sisters and show the world, show America: You mess with us, you mess with all of us,” co-organizer Jeff Roberts told a gathering.

“This isn’t an Oregon problem, this is a national problem, and it’s happening everywhere,” he said.

Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, said they set fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their Harney County property from wildfires. Prosecutors said the pair set the fires to cover up evidence of deer poaching.

The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time — Dwight three months, and Steven a year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.

Hammond has said he and his son plan to report to prison Monday in Los Angeles as ordered by a judge, but the court decision has generated controversy across the West.

Protesters at the Burns rally came from as far away as Idaho, Nevada and Arizona.

“It’s about this community being trampled on,” one of the organizers, who did not identify himself, said as he stood on the bed of a pickup truck in the parking lot of a Safeway supermarket.

“This is the public saying we’re not going to take it anymore, we’ve had it … . The people of the republic are tired, and it starts right here in this parking lot, guys.”

The procession stopped briefly at the Hammonds’ home, where supporters greeted the elder Hammond on the front porch and sang “Amazing Grace.”

The group at the wildlife refuge is apparently led by sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who in 2014 led a standoff against federal agents who sought to collect Bundy’s cattle over his $1 million debt to the Bureau of Land Management for grazing fees.

Hundreds of self-styled militiamen flocked to Bundy’s ranch and, after pointing weapons at federal agents, ended the standoff.

At the time, BLM and law enforcement officials worried privately that the standoff would embolden the movement and cement Bundy’s status as a movement leader.

“We can enforce the Constitution in Harney County and that’s what we intend to do,” Bundy’s son Ammon told reporters at the rally. “We have a lot of plans.”

His father told Oregon Public Broadcasting that he had spoken to his son and it appeared he and his cohorts were equipped with food and a generator.

“He told me that they were there for the long run. I guess they figured they’re going to be there for whatever time it takes — and I don’t know what that means,” the elder Bundy said.

Another of Bundy’s sons, Ryan, who also appears to be at the wildlife refuge, told the Oregonian that the protesters want to see local control of federal land.

“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 main body of protesters sought to distance themselves from the breakaway faction, which Ammon Bundy said does not consider itself a militia, and the father and son for whom the protest was held are similarly unaffiliated with the occupation.

A number of Western conservatives have called for the return of federal lands to state and local government. The movement has waxed and waned since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s, which centered on ranchers’ rights and the money that could be made from timber harvesting, mining and ranching, if only the federal government didn’t forbid such profitable endeavors.

The movement has picked up steam in recent years, led by Utah legislator Ken Ivory, who helms a national organization called the American Lands Council that tries to persuade county and state governments to pursue the ownership of federal lands. A watchdog group has accused him of fraud in three states for his use of taxpayer dollars.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a report on the Bundy standoff, said the militiamen and the federal land-return movement are part of the same spectrum.

“Anti-government extremists have long pushed, most fiercely during Democratic administrations, rabid conspiracy theories about a nefarious New World Order, a socialist, gun-grabbing federal government and the evils of federal law enforcement,” the center said in the report.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, incorporated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, has grown since its inception and presents challenges to the ranching families in the area, who say they are increasingly hemmed in by the federal preserve.

Beginning about one month ago, Ammon Bundy and others arrived in Burns and agitated locals, who wondered what they were up to. By Saturday, the plan became clear, and the Bundys, via their ranch’s Facebook page, called for “all freedom-loving people” to help occupy the wildlife refuge.

“The people are finally getting some good use out of a federal facility,” read a post by the Bundy Ranch on its Facebook page.

The wildlife preserve is in a remote region of Oregon, and the protest overwhelmed the already limited Harney County Sheriff’s Office, which asked the public to stop calling on Saturday because residents were having trouble reaching emergency dispatchers.

“A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution,” Ward said in a statement Saturday night. “For the time being, please stay away from that area.”

Ryan Bundy talks on the phone at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns on Sunday. Bundy is one of the protesters occupying the refuge. AP Photo