On Saturday night, dozens of white, armed American militants stormed a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon seeking to take a “hard stand” against federal government “tyranny.” It’s a wild story. Here’s what you need to know.
Q: Where is this?
A: The building seized by the militants is at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge — a remote, marshy oasis in Oregon’s high desert famed for its spectacular migratory bird populations. The standoff is in the remote southeast of the state — far closer to the Nevada line (124 miles) and Boise, Idaho (217 miles), than to Portland (305 miles). The closest city is Burns, Oregon, population 2,800, 30 miles to the north.
Q: What sparked the militia takeover?
A: The answer here is complicated. In short, the militants are outraged about a mandatory minimum sentence received for arson by a local rancher and his son.
The ranchers, Dwight Hammond, Jr., 73, and his son Steve, 43, were convicted of federal arson charges, stemming from a pair or fires on federal land near their ranch. The first was reportedly set in 2001 to cover up their illegal poaching of a deer on government property. It burned 139 acres. The second was reportedly set in 2006 as a defensive measure, to protect the ranch from an approaching lightning-sparked wildfire. That arson reportedly endangered volunteer firefighters camped nearby. The government would seek $1 million in damages. (For a deep dive of the backstory read this piece in The Oregonian.)
Q: So some Oregon ranchers got busted for arson. Where’s the tyranny?
A: The ranchers’ case became a cause celebre in the patriot/militia movement because the pair were sentenced for their arson crimes under a provision of a law called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. And they were oddly sentenced twice.
The federal law in question doesn’t just deal with terrorism. It created a five-year mandatory-minimum sentence for arson on federal land: “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys… by means of fire…any…real property…owned or possessed by…the United States…shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years…”
The first federal judge to handle the case concluded that the mandatory sentence was too stiff and gave the pair far lighter sentences, which they served. But the U.S. attorney in the case called foul; the federal government took the rare step of appealing the sentence. In October 2015, the Ninth Circuit imposed the mandatory minimum, ruling that: “given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.” The ranchers are due back in federal prison Monday to serve out their five years each.
But this odd re-sentencing, under a statute that makes it sound like the cattlemen were being prosecuted for terrorism, inflamed the paranoid passions of the anti-government patriot and militia movements, and brought the militants to Burns for a rally on Saturday.
Q: The Bundys are involved in this, aren’t they?
A: Yup. Tensions between Western ranchers and the federal government have been running at a fever pitch since an armed standoff between supporters of Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management. Recall that Bundy does not recognize the claim of the federal government to the land that his cattle roam in Nevada. He owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and fines. The feds briefly seized his cattle back in 2014, leading to an armed standoff that the feds chose to de-escalate rather than risk provoking another deadly showdown like occurred at Waco or Ruby Ridge in the 1990s.
Q: So Cliven Bundy is in Oregon?
A: No, but at least two of his sons are. Ammon Bundy appears to be leading the takeover. In a video posted to Facebook, he declares: “We have basically taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And this will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here and to live here. And we’re planning on staying here for several years.” Calling his group “the point of the spear,” Ammon Bundy called on like-minded militants to “bring your arms.”
Q: What do the militants want?
A: In a phone in interview with The Oregonian, another Bundy son, Ryan, laid out the militants’ demands: that the Hammonds be released and that the surrounding federal lands be ceded to local control. “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area… will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control,” Ryan Bundy said. He added, “What we’re doing is not rebellious. What we’re doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”
Q: Has the federal government reacted to this latest Bundy provocation?
A: Not yet.