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Armed Protesters Occupy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Center In Oregon


A small group of antigovernment militants say they have no intention of leaving the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. They've been occupying the refuge headquarters since Saturday. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from the scene.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's unclear how many protesters have taken this small collection of houses and sheds owned by the federal government. Judging by the numbers who've come out to the roadblock, it may not be more than a dozen. They're certainly outnumbered by the media who've camped out here along the road. Law enforcement, though, is nowhere to be seen, at least not out here on this snow-dusted hillside. When the protestors took it over this weekend, they said they were taking it back for all taxpaying Americans. Though at the moment, they're reserving access mostly for themselves.

JOHN RITZHEIMER: Nobody's allowed down there right now. Press conference will be up here at 11 o'clock.

KASTE: No one's allowed down there?

RITZHEIMER: Not right now. They may take people down there after, but...

KASTE: If you insist on your right as a taxpaying American to walk down there anyway, they let you, grudgingly. But they say it's a lack of respect, and they send along an escort. Mine was John Ritzheimer, a former Marine from Arizona who's attracted attention recently as an anti-Islam campaigner. In fact, all the occupiers are from somewhere else. They admit as much. This morning, most of them were inside a fieldstone building next to the maintenance yard.

KASTE: The door was opened by a big guy in camo with tattoos on his eyelids who made sure to block my view of the inside.



KASTE: My name's Martin Kaste. I'm a reporter for NPR. I...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice to meet you.

KASTE: Likewise.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Press conferences will be held at 11 o'clock up top.

KASTE: That press conference was run by Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who got so much attention with his standoff with the feds over grazing fees. Now Ammon says he wants to help ranchers in Oregon, specifically a local ranching family by the name of Hammond. Bundy says the Hammonds have endured years of federal bullying because they won't sell their land to the government.


AMMON BUNDY: The Hammond family have refused to sell it because they want to pass on the ranching heritage to their children and to their grandchildren. And because of that refusal to sell their ranch, these federal agencies began an attack on this family.

KASTE: All of this came to a head last fall when Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son, were resentenced to five years in prison for setting illegal fires on federal land. The sentence was widely seen as excessive and possibly vindictive on the part of the feds. But the Hammond family has said it doesn't want the help of these out-of-town protesters. Nevertheless, a handful of local onlookers came by today, and while they mostly disagreed with the tactics here, they sympathized with the goals. Mitch Siegner ranches nearby.

MITCH SIEGNER: If they're bringing light to, you know, the overreach of the government, I think that's a good thing. I think that the government's too big, and they need to get some of these local decisions back to the local people making these decisions. And I'm all in support of that.

KASTE: The protestors are a little vague about they plan to do here now that they control these buildings. They say they're not holding out for demands here. Instead, they say they just plan to stay put and, as they put it, unwind the federal government's ownership of this wildlife refuge. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Hearney County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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