LOS ANGELES - The protesters occupying a U.S. national wildlife refuge in Oregon State are a diverse group with divergent concerns, say analysts, but they have been influenced by the extremist militia movement, which looks forward to a war with the federal government.
The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon occurred Saturday, as the center was closed for the New Year's holiday weekend.
The refuge is 50 kilometers from the nearest town. “It's ranch country, with wide open views and a whole lot of sagebrush,” said Oregon video-journalist Steve Kaufmann, who has been reporting from the scene. He says the influx of outsiders has put the community “on edge.”
Protest leader Ammon Bundy is a rancher from Nevada. His family was in the news in 2014, when Bundy, his father, Cliven, and his brothers took part in an armed standoff with federal officials, after refusing to pay fees for grazing their cattle on federal land. Ammon Bundy is at the Oregon compound with two of his brothers.
Bundy said Monday the occupying group has named itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.
The protesters are addressing issues of concern to many Western ranchers, said John Freemuth, an expert on land use at Boise State University in neighboring Idaho. Freemuth notes there has been a shift in public values toward wildlife protection, which he says has left ranchers feeling “squeezed by all these changes, new environmental laws ... and they feel that they're not listened to.” The U.S. government controls huge swaths of land in the West, including more than half of the state of Oregon.
The loosely organized occupation group has drawn people with various concerns, including gun rights. Oregon is one of 45 states with so-called “open carry” laws, which allow people to carry firearms.
Protester Jon Ritzheimer has led armed anti-Islamic protests in his home state of Arizona.
Rick Eaton, a researcher on extremist groups at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, notes that an anti-Islamic website linked to Ritzheimer is raising funds online in support of the Oregon occupiers. Ritzheimer posted an emotional declaration on YouTube warning that “there's no stopping us.”
John Freemuth says most Oregonians are appalled at the confrontation sparked by outside activists “who have rolled in, armed and threatening, and have gone way beyond what the local folks were protesting.”
Sandy Volley told the Associated Press, “Nobody agrees with everything that the federal government does, but the way they (the protesters) are handling this is not the right way.”
Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies extremist groups, says some ranchers who have legitimate grievances with the federal government have been influenced by what he calls fringe ideologies, including some that anticipate a war by so-called patriots against the government. He says anti-government extremists should not be the arbiters of what is lawful “in a country where we have a longstanding system of jurisprudence as organized by our courts.”
Researcher Rick Eaton believes federal officials have shown restraint. “To their credit, the government has backed off and has not created a standoff,” said Eaton.
The 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada ended when the U.S. government returned cattle to the family that it had seized for non-payment of fines and grazing fees. Ryan Lenz says the government backed off then in the face of armed protests. He questions whether authorities have an adequate strategy this time.
As the Oregon standoff continues, land-use analyst John Freemuth says that many people feel that these confrontations “cannot keep continuing out here in the West, where a couple of crazy people seem to have adopted warped theories of the Constitution and American history.”
Sheriff David Ward of Harney County addressed the protesters in a news conference Monday. “It is time for you to leave our community,” he said. “Go home to your own families and end this peacefully.”