ST. GEORGE — Armed protesters who took over a federal building at an Oregon wildlife refuge last week have told reporters they have no intention of leaving until a plan is in place to transfer management of public lands from the federal government to the states.
While ranchers and others gathered at Burns, Oregon, last week to support ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond, a father and son who were convicted of committing arson on two separate occasions, the event has since been used by the protesters to highlight a continuing movement in the West that advocates local management of public lands over federal control.
Ammon Bundy: Transfer management of the lands, then we’ll leave
Ammon Bundy — son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who was involved in a standoff with federal agents over public land use issues in 2014 — told reporters late Tuesday that the group of protesters would leave when there was a plan in place to turn over federal lands to locals — a common refrain in a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.
“It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching,” Ammon Bundy said, according to The Associated Press.
The group of armed protesters who took over the building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are estimated to be around 20 in number, according to The Associated Press. They were originally a part of a peaceful protest Saturday related to the Hammonds’ conviction.
Prosecutors said the Hammonds lit fires on public lands in 2001 and 2006. The first time was to cover up a deer poaching and the second was to burn out invasive plants and to create a fire break for possible wildfire. The Hammonds were subsequently prosecuted and convicted for arson.
Dwight and Steve Hammond served their original sentences — three months for Dwight Hammond and one year for Steven Hammond — but an appeals court judge ruled the terms fell short of minimum sentences that require them to serve about four more years.
The Hammonds reported to federal authorities Monday and were transferred to California to begin their prison terms. They have, according to media reports, distanced themselves from the actions of the group at the wildlife refuge.
Ammon Bundy said group members would take a defensive position anticipating a possible raid Tuesday night. As a precaution, they moved a large plow vehicle to block the refuge’s driveway, The Associated Press reported.
Not everyone is happy with the protesters’ actions in Oregon.
Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, in a press conference Wednesday, said it was time for the group to go home.
“First of all, Americans have the right to protest, it should not take this form, and it is time for those who are there to depart,” Welden said. “They have made their case, but it also brings up the issues we deal with in the West.”
As for the case of the Hammonds, Walden said a federal judge had felt the five-year mandatory sentences the Hammonds were faced with “would be unconscionable to levy” and therefore should be changed to shorter terms, according to The Associated Press.
“We need to change the federal law under which they were sentenced,” Walden said, and added:
The takeaway has to be that there is a problem in the West across the whole Great Basin that has to be dealt with responsibly. But an armed takeover is not the way to go about it.
Call for state control versus federal control
Advocates for state control of public lands have said local government is better suited to managing public lands as they claim federal agencies are doing more harm than good. They allege communities that once flourished by harvesting natural resources are now economically devastated and that the continuing mismanagement of national forests is creating possible hazards, among other accusations.
“Unfortunately, federal mismanagement of our public lands is producing unhealthy air and water, decimated wildlife, blocked off and destroyed recreation access, and unsafe, economically depressed communities,” the American Lands Council, a group that lobbies for state control of the lands, said in a statement Wednesday.
“As the constitutional lines of jurisdiction have become blurred, unfair treatment of American citizens has also become more prevalent,” the ALC said.
While ALC officials share the protesters’ belief that the Hammonds were treated unfairly and that there should be local control, they did not express support for what the protesters are doing.
“In spite of grave injustices levied against the Hammond ranching family, the potentially dangerous standoff that is shaping up in Oregon is not likely to resolve conflicts caused by the federal government’s mismanagement of public lands,” the ALC statement read.
The ALC statement continued: “Although we understand the frustration with how the Hammonds and many other rural Americans have been treated by federal land managers, we pray the situation in Oregon is decided peacefully, and that calm reason prevails on all sides.”
According to The Associated Press, a group calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom said it wants an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after the Hammonds reported back to prison Monday.
Federal officials: The lands belong to everyone
Randy Eardley, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said the group’s call for land ownership transfer doesn’t make sense.
“It is frustrating when I hear the demand that we return the land to the people, because it is in the people’s hand — the people own it,” Eardley said. “Everybody in the United States owns that land. … We manage it the best we can for its owners, the people … whether it’s for recreating, for grazing, for energy and mineral development.”
The federal government controls about half of all land in the West, which would make the wholesale transfer of ownership extremely difficult and expensive.
For example, it owns 53 percent of Oregon, 85 percent of Nevada and 66 percent of Utah, according to the Congressional Research Service. Taking over federal public lands in Idaho could cost the state $111 million a year, according to a University of Idaho study.
Such land disputes date back decades in the West. In the 1970s, Nevada and other states pushed for local control in what was known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Supporters wanted more land for cattle grazing, mining and timber harvesting.
The Associated Press contributed to this story
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