Guns, Grazers, and Grievances

(**Updated as of Tues., Jan. 19)

Basic Info: 

Armed anti-government protesters took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, OR on Jan. 2. The group, called the Citizens of Constitutional Freedom, began the occupation at the federally-owned refuge after Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of arson. According to prosecutors, the father-and-son ranchers set a fire that burned about 130 acres of federal land in 2001 to cover up deer poaching. The Hammonds, who turned themselves in Monday afternoon, said that they set the fire to prevent invasive plants from growing onto their property and to prevent their land from wildfires.

The Oregon ranchers who created the protest group were outraged by the Hammonds’ five-year prison sentence, stating that officials unfairly punished the ranchers for not selling their land to the federal government. The Oregonian newspaper notes: “Three-quarters of Harney County’s land is federally owned, a reality that, here and elsewhere in the West, has long fueled debate about the ownership and management of federal lands. Locals who rely upon federal lands to graze cattle and sheep say they worry every time an environmental concern arises or a particularly bad wildfire season hits. Often those issues come with new regulations on their use of the land.”

After the protest march for the Hammonds on Jan. 2, demonstrators broke into the unoccupied refuge and refused to leave. Ammon Bundy, the leader of the armed group, argued that, “people will need to be able to use the land and resources without fear as free men and women,” and accused the officials of “taking and using the [American people’s] land and resources.” Bundy said that the group will stay at the building for “as long as necessary” until the Hammonds are released from prison and federal land is transferred to locals. “We will be here as long as it takes,” Bundy said. “We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, [but] if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.” The Hammonds have stated that they do not want help from the group.

Week 1 Updates:

Although the local community appreciates the group for exposing long-time issues over public land between the federal government and ranchers, most citizens want protesters to leave. During county community meetings on Jan. 6 and Jan. 11, the majority of residents agreed that they wanted the group to leave and the situation to end peacefully.

Additionally, members of the Burns Paiute Tribe spoke about the armed standoff during the meeting. Members claim that their ancestors were the first owners of the now occuppied land in Oregon. The tribe, who is currently fighting over their right to use the federally-owned land, was outraged when demonstrators demanded the land to be returned to the ranchers who occupied it after the tribe’s ancestors. “For [the protesters] to come in and say we’re going to give it to the rightful owners – I’m laughing,” said Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council. “Armed protesters don’t belong here. By their actions they are desecrating one of our sacred sites.”

Local leaders, such as Harney County Sheriff David Warde and the Burns Paiute Tribe, to public officials, such as the Burns mayor and the Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, have ordered protesters to “go home.” However, the group does not plan to leave anytime soon. “There is a time to go home,” Bundy said. “We recognize that. We don’t feel it’s quite time yet.”

The FBI, Oregon State Police, and other officials around the state are working on a “peaceful solution” to the standoff. Currently, the FBI has decided to wait the protesters out in order to prevent a potentially deadly confrontation. Retired supervisory FBI agent Steve Moore supports the FBI’s decision. “There is no real reason, at this point, to go in. And the FBI knows that.”

However, critics complained about the FBI’s low-key approach, suggesting that the government’s response would have been swifter and more severe had the occupants been part of a minority group. Twitter users pointed out the supposed “double-standard” of the government’s approach to dealing with the situation, calling the occupation “domestic terrorism” and using hashtags such as “#OregonUnderAttack” and “#YallQaeda.”

On Jan. 9, some observers tried taking a direct approach to the protesters. Armed members of the Pacific Patriots Network, which consists of groups from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, arrived at the refuge. Their leader, Brandon Curtiss, said his group came to “de-escalate” the situation by ensuring “everybody’s safety, on both sides.” He intended to meet with standoff organizers as well as local public officials and law enforcement leaders to help bring about a “peaceful resolution” to the occupation. Curtiss’s group left the compound after the protesters said that they did not want Curtiss’s services.

Additionally, Oregon state legislator Rep. Dallas Heard talked with Bundy’s group on Saturday, despite local officials’ advice against the visit. Heard was accompanied by Rep. Cliff Bentz, the Republican state representative whose district includes the wildlife refuge, and five other out-of-state officials from Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. Heard did not speak about the meeting with The Associated Press on Sunday, Jan. 10.

On Saturday, Bundy’s mother, Carol Bundy, sent an email to supporters asking them to send supplies to the group in preparation for the second week of the occupation. The list included sleeping bags, wool socks, cigarettes, toiletries, food, coffee and “French Vanilla Creamer.” American citizens responded to this plea by sending hate mail, which contained an abundance of sarcastic gifts, such as bags of gelatin and sex toys, and messages of ridicule directed towards the armed group.

The protesters eventually received a large stash of food from supporters after making more pleas online throughout the week.

Week 2 Updates:

On Monday, Jan. 11, protesters destroyed 25 to 30 yards of the refuge’s fence. The partially-destroyed fence was installed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the protest group destroyed the fence using the agency’s own equipment. According to Bundy, the Fish and Wildlife Service used a $100,000 grant to install the fence last year to prevent a local ranching family’s 600 cattle from grazing on nearby public land. Bundy also said that Tim Puckett’s family, who owns the ranch and lives about five miles south of the refuge, granted his group permission to destroy the fence. “This will help them out, being able to run their ranch like they have in the past,” Bundy said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service condemned the demonstrators’ actions in a written statement: “Removing fences, damaging any refuge property, or unauthorized use of equipment would be additional unlawful actions by the illegal occupiers. Any movement of cattle onto the refuge or other activities that are not specifically authorized by [the Fish and Wildlife Service] constitutes trespassing.” The agency also said that the protesters not only hurt the refuge, but also destroyed the “positive conservation impacts” of the refuge and the “sweat equity paid by the Harney County (and surrounding) communities, ranchers, landowners, partners and friends.” Nonetheless, Bundy and his group plan similar actions for the future.

Additionally on Jan. 14, Puckett said he did not give Bundy and the protest group permission to enter the ranch and destroy the publicly owned fence. Puckett said that he has never spoken to Bundy and his group and “didn’t know about it” until late Monday night. “They didn’t have my permission to do anything.”

On the other hand, Bundy said he got permission from the property owners, who he declined to identify, but implied they were Puckett’s sons. “Mr. Puckett lives a long ways and his sons live here and they run the ranch as far as I know it’s in their name,” he said. Puckett, however, said the ranch is only in his name.

Puckett acknowledged that one of his representatives at the ranch showed the demonstrators where the fence was and allowed them on the property, but did not give them permission to tear out the fence. However, Puckett claimed responsibility for Bundy entering the ranch: “I own the property. I guarantee there wouldn’t have been no escort out to no fence if I’d have been there.” His ranch hands have already repaired the fence.

On Jan. 12, the armed group announced that they would drive into Burns at the end of the week and hold a community meeting. The protesters intend to remind the community why they are there and announce a departure plan. “I think there should be dialogue,” said Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a leader of the group.

The meeting, which was supposed to take place on Friday at 7 P.M., was called off on Jan. 14 because Harney County told Bundy’s group that it could not hold a planned community meeting at county-owned fairgrounds. “We have a longstanding practice of allowing community groups to use county facilities,” said Harney County commissioner Steven Grasty. “But we unfortunately now find ourselves in a place where the county must deny those facilities to any group that is supportive of, associated with, or on the behalf of the militants at the refuge.”

On Jan. 15, members of the Harney County Committee of Safety said the county has no right to deny use of the building because its leaders disagree with the group. They are considering legal action, saying the denial infringes on their rights under the First Amendment. A statement published on the committee’s website said that the county cannot block the use of public facilities “as long as we follow the normal process.”

However, First Amendment expert Gene Policinski said that the government can prevent a group from using public facilities “if there’s a threat of imminent danger of lawlessness.” Since Bundy and the protesters are illegally occupying federal property, the county therefore has the right to prevent them from using public settings for their meeting.

Additionally, Grasty issued a statement saying Bundy did not follow proper procedure to use the fairgrounds. He also said that the county “has publicly stated it would not allow the facility to be used by those who are committing criminal activities.”

The protesters were hoping for a meeting to be arranged on Monday, Jan. 18.

On Jan. 13, community members became more vocal about their fears of the protest group. Currently, more than a dozen local residents have reported to authorities that they were harassed by the demonstrators before and during the occupation. Different trucks, SUVs and other vehicles – most with out-if-state licenses – have followed the residents.

Jason Patrick, a member of the protest group, said that the protestors had no role in any intimidation. “It’s never been us. It would serve no purpose.” However, police and community members said that the threat is real and the harassment had been going on for weeks.

On Saturday, Jan. 16, the occupiers arrived at a routine morning news briefing at the refuge with a wicker basket full of security cameras. They removed the cameras from the refuge, claiming that they had been installed by the FBI. “This in my opinion is unreasonable search,” said LaVoy Finicum, spokesman for the protesters. He referenced the Fourth Amendment as he invited the agency to “come pick them up.”

The demonstrators also accused the government of harassing their families. According to the protesters, Child Protective Services workers had begun visiting some of the occupiers’ families.

Meanwhile, three conservationists of the Members of the Center for Biological Diversity arrived at the news briefing carrying signs that read “STOP BUNDY LAND GRAB” and waiting to speak against the seizure of the refuge. The Arizona-based nonprofit, led by executive director Kieran Suckling, claims more than 990,000 members and activists dedicated to protecting wild places and endangered species.

When Finicum finished addressing reporters, Suckling picked up the microphone and began to speak against the occupation. The occupiers started yelling and booing, but Suckling continued over the clamor: “We’re here to speak up for public land, which belongs to the public. These people are trying to take the land away.” The occupiers continued to boo and shout down the conservationists. Pete Santilli, one of the occupiers, pulled out a bullhorn and started shouting “communist” and “fascist.” He then flipped on the siren and said, “You’re under arrest for bull****ting.” Suckling and his group stopped talking and instead pointed to the signs they were carrying.

On Jan. 16, protesters demanded for every county in the U.S. to surrender federal land to the people. They expect this process to start in Harney County with a citizens group processing deeds, according to Ryan Payne, one of the leaders of the occupation. Payne said the group believed the federal government has no constitutional authority to hold vast land tracts and that the county government should be in charge of transferring the land to the people.

Several dozen refuge supporters in Bend, OR, which is a two-hour drive away from Burns, gathered in the downtown streets and held signs that read “Birders against bullies.” The supporters have been very vocal about asking Bundy and his group to leave the refuge, but the Bend gathering was the first held to send a clear message tot eh occupiers. The supporters wanted to give voice to those who oppose Bundy and his group’s actions, including environmentalists, nature lovers, and outdoorsmen and women.

Refuge supporters also voiced their concerns to Twitter – using the hashtags #RefugeRally and #SupportMalheur – and Facebook, where they are calling on more arrests to be made and posting pictures they have taken over the years at the refuge. Several other protests are planned across the state on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

Week 3 Updates:

On Jan. 17, Oregon brothers Zack and Jack Klonoski launched an anti-Bundy fundraising campaign called G.O.H.O.M.E., which stands for Getting the Occupiers of Historic Oregon Malheur Evicted. The brothers hoped to convince Bundy and his crew to leave by collecting money for groups whose mission opposes the occupiers’ beliefs. Recipients of the donations included a gun control campaign, a group that supports the wildlife refuge, an organization that has labeled Bundy and company as extremists, and the Burns Paiute Tribe.

Minutes into the G.O.H.O.M.E. campaign’s launch, it had received more than $500 in donations. “We feel Oregonians generally oppose the occupation,” Klonoski said, “and we want to provide them w/ a peaceful and meaningful way to express their anger, frustration and opposition.”

The campaign will continue as long as the occupation does. “The more pledges we get, the more pressure there is for them to leave,” said Zack Klonoski. “Otherwise we’re going to continue funding groups that they despise.”

As the occupation continues, questions from frustrated Harney County residents and other observers grow. They wonder why the law enforcement is not taking action to contain the occupiers, why the community has not blocked roads leading to and from the refuge, why officials have not shut down the power to the refuge, and how to keep the media from giving the group a national platform.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of The Washington Post