BURNS, Oregon (AP) — The small group of armed anti-government activists occupying a remote federal wildlife preserve in Oregon’s high desert gave visitors free access to the snowy site Monday, allowing some local residents and ranchers in to satisfy their curiosity or show support.
The group also appeared to be trying to keep the site tidy, picking up cigarette butts from the ground and keeping vehicle and foot traffic primarily to roads and pathways. Federal authorities made no immediate attempt to retake the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which about two dozen activists seized over the weekend as part of a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.
The activists have taken up the cause of father-and-son ranchers convicted of setting fire to federal grazing land. The two ranchers reported to prison on Monday.
There appeared to be no urgent reason for federal officials to move in. No one has been hurt. No one is being held hostage. And because the refuge is a bleak and forbidding stretch of wilderness about 300 miles (500 kilometers) from Portland, and it’s the middle of winter, the standoff is causing few if any disruptions.
Some have complained that the government’s response to the situation in Oregon would have been more severe had the occupants been Muslim or other minorities.
But others said from a tactical standpoint, the government’s cautious response would make sense no matter who was holed up in the government building in the reserve.
Meanwhile, the armed group said it wants an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after the father and son were ordered back to prison for arson on federal grazing lands.
The group calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom demanded a government response within five days related to the ranchers’ extended sentences.
Ammon Bundy — one of the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a 2014 Nevada standoff with the government over grazing rights — told reporters that Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, were treated unfairly.
The Hammonds were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006, one of which was set to cover up deer poaching, according to prosecutors. They said they lit the fires to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
The men served their original sentences —three months for Dwight and one year for Steven. But an appeals court judge ruled the terms fell short of mandatory minimum sentences that require them to serve about four more years.
Their sentences have been a rallying cry for the group, whose mostly male members said they want federal lands turned over to local authorities so people can use them free of U.S. oversight.
The father and son reported to a federal prison Monday in California, said Harney County, Oregon, Sheriff David Ward. He provided no other details.
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the protest group and many locals, including people who want to see federal lands made more accessible, don’t want the activists here, fearing they may bring trouble.
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