BURNS, Ore. - One of the protesters occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge said Sunday the ultimate goal is to turn the land over to local authorities so people can use it free of federal oversight.
Ryan Bundy — one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights — told The Associated Press Sunday the protesters want to "restore the rights to people so they can use the land and resources" for ranching, logging, mining and recreation.
Ryan Bundy said he and others are prepared to occupy the remote federal area indefinitely. They object a prison sentence for local ranchers for burning federal land.
Ryan Bundy said the federal government has been "tromping on people's rights and privileges and properties and livelihoods."
The fears of many Burns-area residents of violence when hundreds of militia members converged on the small town failed to materialize as a protest march and rally went peacefully Saturday, in support of two ranchers about to begin their second federal prison term on an arson conviction.
But a short time later, a smaller group took over the refuge headquarters, about 60 miles to the southeast.
Ammon Bundy, another son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher known for his 2014 standoff with the federal government, told NewsChannel 21 he and his group are prepared to stay at the refuge for as long as necessary. He urged others to join them, saying they are peaceful and don't mean any harm.
"It is the people's facility, owned by the people," Bundy said. "And it has been provided for us, to be able to come together and unite in making a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people's land and resources."
The rally kicked off at noon in the quiet town of Burns on a bitterly cold day.
"We're here to support the Hammond family and the community," said Brandon Curtiss, president of the group Idaho 3 Percent.
But after weeks of worry, it was an unsettling day for many area residents.
"We're not used to this kind of thing here," said resident Kainan Jordan.
The militia groups traveled to Burns to show their support for father-and-son ranchers after a judge ruled they served too little time for setting fires that spread to government lands they leased to graze cattle.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit the fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each, as arson on federal land carries a mandatory minimum five-year prison term.
A prescribed burn in 2001 got out of hand, burning 127 acres.
"I'm going to prison for five years for 127 (acres)? Seems like a bit of an overkill to me," Dwight Hammond said Saturday outside their home .
Federal prosecutors believe the blaze was a cover-up of poaching.
On Monday, the Hammonds are turning themselves in at a California federal prison.
"It isn't my decision, obviously," Hammond said. "It's a sentence."
But it's a sentence which people from many states came to the wide-open lands of southeastern Oregon to protest against.
"We've had the same problems in Utah and Nevada," said Utah resident Shannon Cox.
U.S. flags and signs ("We Stand with the Hammonds") in hand, the protesters marched down the street, throwing pennies in front of the door of the Harney County Sheriff's Office, in essence buying back their government.
"He didn't do his job!" one protester said of the sheriff.
Many of the participants said they were hoping the sheriff would stand up against the federal government and protect the Hammonds.
"This whole process has been unjust from start to finish," Curtiss said.
While most people in town support the ranching family, the militia groups' involvement has been sparking controversy for weeks.
"I don't like the militia's methods," said resident Monica McCannon who held up signs against the militia. "They had their rally. Now it's time for them to go home. People are afraid of them."
Others in town shared that sentiment.
"It's sort of frightening when there are people making threats and people toting guns," Jordan said.
Militia organizers insisted they weren't here to cause any harm to anybody.
"We're here for a peaceful rally," Curtiss said. "If the Hammonds decided not to go to prison and stand up for their rights, we would stand right by their side. What would entail after that, I don't know."
The marchers gathered out front of the house, and one by one went to hug Dwight Hammond and his wife.
"To think that there's this many people showing up," he said, his voice breaking.
"I thank everyone who came out here today."
It doesn't change the outcome. On Monday Hammond and his son are going back to prison.
"See you in five years," Hammond said.
Later, in a video message widely spread on Facebook, Ammon Bundy, reportedly joined in the takeover by two brothers and dozens of other militia members, explained why they had taken that step.
"This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here," he said, standing on a snowy road. "And we're planning on staying here for several years."
Bundy said they will be "bringing the lands up and getting the ranchers back to ranching and the miners back to mining, putting the loggers back to logging, where they could do it under the protection of the people, and not be afraid of this tyranny that has been upon them."
"Harney County will begin to thrive again," he said, noting it used to be the wealthiest county in the state and is now the poorest.
"We're doing this for the people," Bundy said. "We're the point of the spear," urging people to "come out here and stand" with them. He said they have a place to stay and food to offer, adding: "We need you to bring your arms."
Another participant, Blaine Cooper, compared the takeover to what is done about the bullies in high school that eventually "you got sick of, and you had to put him in his place. I had to knock mine out, and we became best friends."
"Now, I'm not going to be best friends with the BLM," he said. "The point is, until that line is drawn, that we have had enough of this tyranny and you are going to leave us alone, it will not change. This is the power of America, right here. ... This could be a hope that spreads through the whole United States."
"Everybody's looking for this hope, because the government has beat us and oppressed us and took everything from us, and will not stop until you tell them, 'No!'"
Earlier, about 40 people gathered at a northeast Bend store's parking lot in the Saturday morning cold for a convoy to Burns for the rally
Leader Andrew Bedortha stressed the peaceful nature of the gathering, noting the group included seniors, women and children. "We're not in tactical gear," he said. "
Across the parking lot, about 20 members of area peace and justice groups held their own protest, holding up signs. Organizer Greg Delgado said, "The Constitution should be respected by all of us, and that's what we're here for -- but also that Bend is united for peace."
Earlier background, from The Associated Press:
The case has generated controversy in a remote part of the state where the Hammonds are well-known for their generosity and community contributions. It's also playing into a long-simmering conflict between ranchers and the U.S. government over the use of federal land for cattle grazing.
In particular, the Hammonds' new sentences touched a nerve with far right groups who repudiate federal authority. The son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights, is organizing opposition.
This month, his son Ammon Bundy and a handful of militiamen from other states arrived in Burns, some 60 miles from the Hammond ranch.
In an email to supporters, Ammon Bundy criticized the U.S. government for a failed legal process. Federal lawyers prosecuted the Hammonds under an anti-terrorism law that required a five-year minimum sentence, though they have declined to say why.
Ammon Bundy wrote that the Hammonds are not terrorists and didn't commit any crimes. He also shamed the Harney County sheriff for not protecting the Hammonds. The sheriff didn't respond to calls from The Associated Press.
Ammon Bundy and other right-wing leaders have called on armed militia around the country to come support the Hammonds.
A call for participants in the peaceful demonstration said they wanted "to make it clear that our community isn't silently complicit with these groups and their intimidation tactics."
"If what is happening to the Hammonds is allowed, it will set a standard of what these powerful people will do to all of us," Ammon Bundy wrote in an email, referring to the federal government.
The Hammonds have not welcomed the Bundys' help.
"Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family," the Hammonds' lawyer W. Alan Schroeder wrote to Sheriff David Ward.
Dwight Hammond maintained in an interview with The Associated Press their case isn't about fires: It's the climax of the government's efforts to take their land at a time when saving endangered species has gained in importance.
Over the years, the government chipped away at their grazing allotments, taking some and increasing fees on others, Dwight Hammond said. New federal rules made it harder to renew permits.
After father and son were convicted of the arsons, the government declined to renew their grazing permit. The family is appealing that decision.
"We paid hard dollars over fifty years ago for the right to graze. It isn't right for them to take it away from us," Dwight Hammond said, adding they've had to rent pastures from other ranchers to keep their cows fed.
In an opinion piece published this month in the Burns Times Herald, Oregon's U.S. attorney, Bill Williams, said the Hammonds received a fair trial and lawful sentences.
Williams said the government has never called the ranchers terrorists, and prosecutors acknowledged they were good people who contributed to their community.
Referring to the militia, Williams said: "Any criminal behavior contemplated by those who may object to the court's mandate ... will not be tolerated."