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Armed protesters have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon in protest of federal control of western ranch lands and the treatment of two Oregon ranchers. William Brangham gets an update from Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
But, first, the latest in a three-day standoff in Oregon pitting a small band of self- styled militiamen against the U.S. government and its land management policies.
William Brangham has the story.
The Malheur Wildlife Refuge sits in the snowy high desert of Southeastern Oregon, with just a few small buildings for park staff and visitors. It's now occupied by Ammon Bundy and other armed protesters who are against federal control of Western ranch lands and the treatment of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond.
AMMON BUNDY, Citizens for Constitutional Freedom: They want to pass on the ranching heritage to their children and to their grandchildren. And because of that refusal to sell their ranch, these federal agencies began an attack on this family.
The Hammonds were due to report for additional jail time in California today for a 2012 conviction of committing arson on public lands.
But the Hammonds have distanced themselves from Ammon Bundy, who, along with his father, Cliven Bundy, staged an armed protest back in 2014 in Nevada against federal land management officials.
Last week, Bundy issued an emotional call to help the Hammonds in Oregon.
I feel that this is every bit and maybe in many ways more important than the Bundy ranch. I feel and know that the abuses that this family has endured is much greater than even the Bundy family, and this is something that cannot be ignored.
On Saturday, a crowd did protest the Hammonds' five-year jail sentence. They marched peacefully in Burns, Oregon, which is just 30 miles from the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
Malheur's 187,000 acres are home to more than 320 bird species. It was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt from what were then called — quote — "unclaimed government lands." Now members of the self-described militia, the newly named Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, want the land returned.
LaVoy Finicum is an Arizona rancher in the group.
LAVOY FINICUM, Citizens for Constitutional Freedom: Now here we are, control without representation, one-third of our land mass. It's an empire within our own country, unaccountable, unelected. The real power is in the bureaucracy.
So far, law enforcement hasn't taken any action at the refuge, but the FBI is monitoring the situation.
For more on this story, I'm now joined on the phone by Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
So, Amanda, I understand you were in the compound yesterday, and you have been outside this compound all day today. Can you just tell us a little bit about what is the scene like there?
AMANDA PEACHER, Oregon Public Broadcasting:
So, it's a cold winter day and this compound is situated in just kind of a sea of sagebrush and range land, really. It's very isolated. There are 15, I would estimate, buildings within the complex. And it's very quiet here.
You see a few of the protesters walking between buildings. There are some women in the kitchen making grilled cheese sandwiches for the protesters. But it's very calm. It's very quiet. There was a press conference earlier today in which the protesters spoke a little bit more about why they're here, but, at the scene, it's quite calm.
I mean, obviously, we can't call this a standoff, because there is no one standing in opposition to these guys. Is it really true that there is no sign of law enforcement there?
I have seen zero law enforcement vehicles and — that are marked at least. And I have heard nothing from law enforcement about their intentions to come near the area.
I will say that the protesters here are very peaceful, and law enforcement has indicated that they would like it to remain peaceful here.
I mean, Ammon Bundy and his supporters say that they are there supporting the Hammonds, who reported to prison in Southern California today, although the Hammonds have distanced themselves a bit from that.
What is that the Bundys and his supporters, what do they want?
Well, what they would say is that they would like to see federal lands like this refuge turned over to local control.
They said that they would like to start working the land here. And although it's not exactly clear what that means at this point, I think many of them feel that the way that federal lands are managed is not appropriate and, in some cases, unconstitutional.
What sense have you gotten of what the locals' reaction to all of this has been?
It's been mixed.
I think that there has been a lot of fear about what this could look like from the local community, in part because you hear the words occupation and protest, and people assume that there could be some violence here.
But I did see some local residents come by and take a tour. They were welcomed into the complex. And they thought that they were very welcomed by the protesters and not threatened at all. And they were — appreciated seeing what was actually happening on the ground.
That said, I know that many in Harney County are uncomfortable with having this protest here in this area and are wary of what it could become.
All right, Amanda Peacher, Oregon Public Broadcasting, thank you very much.
And moments ago, the Hammonds officially turned themselves in to serve that additional jail time.
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