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How Protests Turned Into An Armed Takeover Of A Wildlife Refuge In Oregon


And this morning, we are also tracking the latest developments in that armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. There are still armed occupiers inside this refuge. It turns out this is really the latest confrontation in a re-emerging anti-federal government movement in the rural west. And let's talk about that with NPR's Kirk Siegler. He's been covering this for a long time, and he joins us now from eastern Oregon. Kirk, good morning.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So just start with some of the basics, if you can. I mean, how did this become an armed occupation, I mean, what began as sort of the latest protest in a movement that we've seen for a while?

SIEGLER: That's right. It started as a protest in support of two local ranchers here who were convicted of federal arson charges. But at some point, it splintered, and some of these protesters, who include two sons of Nevada ranchers, Cliven Bundy, staged this takeover out at the wildlife refuge. The Bundys are leaders of what's often referred to as this sovereign citizens movement. These are people who want all control of federal land in the West turned over to the states with all law enforcement powers going to local sheriffs. And that's why you're seeing them at the refuge making direct pleas to the local sheriff here in Harney County to do things like stand up to the federal authorities or the oppressors as these people see federal land managers and any federal authority. And, you know, David at the same time, there is also a much broader push right now by some conservative Western state legislatures and governors to try to seize control of management of all federal lands in their states.

GREENE: And Kirk, you mention a name there, Cliven Bundy, this Nevada rancher. Sounds like he is very important to this whole movement we're talking about.

SIEGLER: That's right. So much of this comes back to Cliven Bundy, the defiant cattle rancher in southern Nevada who owes the federal government more than $1 million in unpaid fees for grazing leases and other fines. And when you go out to the area around his ranch down in Nevada, you can see the Bureau of Land Management has completely pulled out after the armed standoff there a year and a half ago, the separate incident. And, you know, for weeks leading up to this past weekend's protest, Cliven Bundy and his family have been all over social media, urging activists to come out here to Oregon. The last time I spoke with Bundy down at his ranch, he told me that the situation there in 2014, that's yet to be resolved but in his mind was a clear sign that his side had won because the BOM has pulled out. And, you know, David, that right there is what's concerning to a lot of retired federal land managers I've been talking to in recent months who think the BOM's reluctance to go after Bundy has really bolstered this land takeover movement and even legitimized it in some cases, which might help explain the latest drama unfolding right now here in Oregon.

GREENE: Well, and doesn't that sort of speak to the position the federal government is in, how to respond to something like this? Because so far, I mean, you have an armed takeover of a federal building, but the federal government has been pretty quiet. They haven't gone in there.

SIEGLER: Exactly, very quiet, and, you know, I think with something like this, we can infer in a situation that could turn violent in any minute, the federal government is going to tread lightly given the precedence here for these types of things going south very quick. You have Waco. You have the standoff with white separatists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the 1990s to name two. You know, the '90s were the last period in which we really saw this level of militia-type organizing and anti-federal government sentiment in the West as we're seeing today.

GREENE: What is at stake here broadly? I mean, if you were to describe what exactly has made people in rural America angry that might be driving a protest like this, I mean, how would you describe it?

SIEGLER: I want to be clear here, David. I mean, I've talked to many ranchers who in no way would support Cliven Bundy or those who would occupy federal property like this. But yet they've got plenty of frustrations with what they see as a federal government that makes decisions about the land from far away in offices in D.C. and without much local input. You know, there's this feeling out there that land managers at the top are out of touch with what it's really like to make a living out on the land. And you consider that all of these disputes that we have been tracking are occurring at a time when the economies of rural places like this are changing rapidly. Here in the Mountain West, you have economies that used to survive and thrive on timber, extractive industries and cattle grazing on public lands. And a lot of this has been slowly going away for a whole lot of complex economic reasons like low commodity prices and political ones such as tougher environmental laws.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Kirk Siegler who is in eastern Oregon covering that armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge that's still ongoing. Kirk, thanks a lot.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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