BURNS, Ore., Jan. 3 (UPI) — An armed group has seized control of a federal building in Oregon to protest alleged unconstitutional action by the U.S. government after holding a rally showing support for ranchers convicted of arson.
The incident began in the town of Burns, where protesters were voicing support for Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, who were convicted of arson in 2012 and served time in prison but whose sentences a court later ruled were too short.
The men were scheduled to turn themselves in on Monday to serve five years in prison. Dwight Hammond said he and his son are planning to peacefully report to prison despite the protest.
After the rally Saturday, armed protesters broke into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s unoccupied government building less than 30 miles away and refused to leave.
The group said it could possibly stay in the compound for years and may use violence if authorities attempt to evict them.
“We will be here as long as it takes,” Ammon Bundy, a spokesman for the group, told CNN. “We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, [but] if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.”
Some in the local community disagree with the group’s steps, calling them a militia.
“I don’t like the militia’s methods,” local resident Monica McCannon told KTVZ. “They had their rally. Now it’s time for them to go home. People are afraid of them.”
“We’re not used to this kind of thing here,” said resident Kainan Jordan. “It’s sort of frightening when there are people making threats and people toting guns.”
Bundy, 40, is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who gained international attention in 2014 after staging an armed standoff with federal authorities over a grazing dispute with the Bureau of Land Management.
In the CNN interview, Ammon Bundy did not respond to questions about what their specific demands were, but said the action was taken to help locals “claim back their lands and resources.”
“We are not terrorists… We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children,” Bundy said. “We are using the wildlife refuge as a place for individuals across the United States to come and assist in helping the people of Harney County claim back their lands and resources.”
“The people will need to be able to use the land and resources without fear as free men and women. We know it will take some time,” Bundy said, adding that the government’s alleged actions of taking away farmers’ land is unconstitutional.
In a video later added on Facebook, Bundy attempted to explain the group’s actions.
“This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here,” Bundy said. “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.”
In the arson case, the Hammonds said they lit the fires to reduce the growth of invasive species and protect their land from wildfires.
The acting U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams of Oregon wrote an opinion piece in the Burns Times Herald in December defending the prosecution’s actions in the Hammond case.
“Five years ago, a federal grand jury charged Dwight and Steven Hammond with committing arson on public lands and endangering firefighters,” Williams wrote. “Steven Hammond was also found guilty of committing a second arson in 2006.”
Prosecutors said witnesses saw the Hammonds illegally slaughter at least seven deer on public land, with some “limping or running from the scene.”
Williams wrote that a teenage relative of the Hammonds testified that Steven Hammond gave him a box of matches and told him to start a fire, which “destroyed evidence of the deer slaughter and took about 130 acres of public land out of public use for two years.”