BURNS, Ore. (AP) — A pickup truck blocked the entrance Tuesday to a national wildlife preserve where a small armed group upset over federal land policy has occupied the frozen swath of remote Oregon since the weekend.
From a watchtower, a member of the group looked out over the snowy grounds. The activists who came to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were bundled in camouflage, ear muffs and cowboy hats in the bleak, high desert of eastern Oregon where they seemed more likely to encounter wildlife than people.
That may be a key reason why law enforcement has not taken action against the group of about two dozen activists opposing the imprisonment of father-and-son ranchers who set fire to federal land.
Many observers complained, suggesting the government’s response would have been swifter and more severe had the occupants been Muslim or other minorities.
“There seems to be somewhat of a reluctance to think White people are as dangerous as people of color,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
The activists seized the refuge about 300 miles from Portland on Saturday night as part of a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.
They said they want an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, reported back to prison Monday.
The Hammonds were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006, one of which was set to cover up deer poaching, according to prosecutors. The men served no more than a year until an appeals court judge ruled the terms fell short of minimum sentences that require them to serve about four more years.
Their sentences were a rallying cry for the group calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, whose mostly male members said they want federal lands turned over to local authorities so people can use them free of U.S. oversight.
The group is led by two of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights. The activists sent a demand for “redress for grievances” to local, state and federal officials.
“We have exhausted all prudent measures and have been ignored,” Ammon Bundy said.
The group, which included a couple of women and some boys and girls Monday, did not release a copy of its demands, and Ammon Bundy would not say what the group would do if it got no response.
President Barack Obama said federal authorities were monitoring the situation, but agents made no apparent moves to surround the property or confront the group — an approach that reflected lessons learned from bloody standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, in the early 1990s.
The group was emboldened by the government’s failure to hold Cliven Bundy or his supporters accountable in 2014 after hundreds of armed anti-government activists rallied to his defense when federal authorities started seizing his cattle over more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees, according to Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Michael Barkun, an emeritus professor at Syracuse University who has studied extremist groups, said not confronting the Oregon group could embolden others.
“You can say, well, a negotiated settlement emboldens them,” he said. “But by the same token, it deprives them of a confrontation that some of them want.”
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the protest group. Many locals, including people who want to see federal lands made more accessible, don’t want the activists here, fearing they may bring trouble.
Seeds of the dispute date back decades in the West, where the federal government owns about half of all land.
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, and opponents wanted the federal government to administer lands for the widest possible uses, including environmental and recreational.
The refuge established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect birds from hunters selling plumes to the hat industry has expanded to 300 square miles over the years.
The valley rimmed by distant mountains contains lakes and marshland and now surrounds the ranch Dwight Hammond bought with his father in 1964.
Hammond said his family resisted pressure to sell the ranch as the federal government chipped away at his grazing allotments and increased fees on other lands.
Johnson reported from Seattle. Associated Press writer Brian Melley contributed from Los Angeles.