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Oregon Occupation Reignites Debate Over Federal Land Management


It's been five days now since armed militants began occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. The takeover has restarted a debate over federal land management. The militants have said they'll stay until the land is under local control. The sheriff of Harney County, David Ward, has pleaded with them to leave. NPR's Kirk Siegler is covering the dispute and is with us now from Burns, Ore. And Kirk, you've been out the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge today. Where do things stand right now?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, you do get the sense that some of the militants are maybe feeling a little bit jittery, like they feel as though the authorities are going to come in at any moment and there will be some sort of action, maybe even put a bulldozer in front of the driveway there. And some of that may be because as you mentioned, the local sheriff - he has said that he believes the federal government will bring charges against at least some of these men. And the occupiers keep telling us they want to resolve this peacefully. But remember, they are in some cases heavily armed.


SIEGLER: And meanwhile, you know, it's actually turning into a bit of a circus-type atmosphere out there at times. I mean, there are a lot of people coming here from all over this region to crash the party. Today, even PETA, the animal-rights activist group even showed up and handed one of the leaders, Ammon Bundy, Tofurky-style jerky as he was walking up the snowy driveway to talk to us reporters.

MCEVERS: This occupation started last Saturday. I mean, do you - do you have a sense of - at all of how much longer this will last?

SIEGLER: Well, this is the big question, right? I mean, I asked Ammon Bundy that during their daily news conference today, and he wouldn't give us a firm answer. And to be clear, it's not really that big of a group. And unlike the standoff that we saw down on the Bundy ranch a year and a half ago, this is not southern Nevada in April. It's very cold; it's snowy; these are inhospitable conditions out here. And the local sheriff has pleaded repeatedly with these occupiers to leave town, saying they're not welcome.

MCEVERS: I mean, remind us of how we got to this point. What is at the heart of this conflict? What do they want?

SIEGLER: Well, this all comes down to access to public lands. If you look at the rhetoric - if you look past the rhetoric of the occupiers, there are some serious and long-simmering tensions here between the ranchers and the government. And when you think of ranching, it's important - you know, I think we all sort of think of this big iconic image of a rancher out on a huge, vast piece of private land. And, you know, that's not really the case in most of the West, especially here. Most ranchers have only small private lands with their house and maybe some buildings around it, and they're leasing all of this Bureau of Land Management land around them. And that's what they lease to graze. So some of these conflicts here stem from how this wildlife refuge has expanded over the years, and that's meant less public land available for other uses, like grazing, as the environment has become more important in some people's minds, especially the federal government. And then, Kelly, one final twist to this story today - you had the Burns' Paiute Tribe coming out and sounding fed up, saying if anyone can claim original jurisdiction over the land it's us.

MCEVERS: Wow. I mean, because this refuge is on federal land - and that means that the FBI is in charge of this investigation at this point - what are they telling you?

SIEGLER: They are not saying much. And it's maybe not surprising because there is precedent for some of these incidents going south.


SIEGLER: There is a sense that the federal authorities want to keep a low profile and want this to sort of diffuse and resolve on its own. So again, we're not hearing anything yet from the FBI. All we have is what the local sheriff has said - that he thinks charges will be coming, so we'll have to be - we'll have to wait and see. And I think it's going to be interesting to see if this goes on much longer whether there will be more public pressure actually for the government to act in one way or another.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler in Burns, Ore., talking about the anti-government occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Thanks so much, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here, Kelly. 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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