Dear Commons Community,
Here is a story from Burns, Oregon, that we do not see very often in this country about a band of armed individuals who have taken over the administrative buildings of a federal government wildlife refuge area. As reported by the New York Times:
“The protesters arrived in this old lumber town to support a 73-year-old rancher and his son who had been sentenced to prison for setting fires that spread to federal lands. It was billed as a peaceful demonstration, but after “Amazing Grace” was sung and hugs were exchanged, a small, armed contingent declared outside a supermarket that it was taking a stand and asked who wanted to join.
So began the latest armed flare-up in a decades-long struggle between federal officials and local landowners and ranchers over how to manage the Western range. The armed antigovernment group seized empty administrative buildings on a federal refuge for wildlife about 30 miles away through the snowy sagebrush, and by Sunday night, had hunkered down for what they vowed would be an indefinite standoff with the government.
“We will be here for as long as it takes,” said Ryan Payne, an Army veteran who characterized the group’s action as a liberation of public lands. “People have talked about returning land to the people for a long time. Finally, someone is making an effort in that direction.”
He said there was already talk of renaming the refuge the Harney County Liberty Center.
Relatives of the ranchers convicted of arson, Dwight L. Hammond and his son Steven D. Hammond, 46, distanced themselves from the armed takeover, but said they understood the underlying anger over federal land policies that many here feel are intrusive and overreaching.
“I don’t know those people that well, except that I just see from the outside that we have a lot of things in common,” said Dwight Hammond’s wife, Susan. “We share a lot of sentiments in regards to our government, and the overreach into management of our country.”
The Harney County sheriff, David M. Ward, said in a statement on Sunday, “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…
The Hammonds bought their ranch in Oregon in 1964, and have spent years at odds with federal land officials in the area. Three years ago, Dwight and Steven were convicted of lighting fires, in 2001 and 2006, that they said were efforts to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species.
The fire in 2001 accidentally spread to about 140 acres of government land, documents show. In 2006, a burn ban was in effect while firefighters battled blazes started by a lightning storm on a hot day in August. Steven Hammond had started a “back burn” to prevent the blaze from destroying the family’s winter feed for its cattle.
The Hammonds each served sentences for the arson charges, but they were ordered to report to a prison in California on Monday after a federal judge ruled that the sentences they had served were not long enough under federal law. Ms. Hammond said her husband and son would surrender themselves as ordered.
The case caused a local uproar, but it also touched a nerve with far-right groups.”
While at first glance, this seems to be a radical reaction to a small local issue, it will be interesting to see how the authorities respond to it. Ultra conservative groups are sure to pick up on it as a cause worth fighting for.