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Armed Militants In Oregon Cancel Public Meeting As Occupation Drags On


The armed militants who are occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon canceled a public meeting that was supposed to be tonight. They had apparently planned to outline an exit strategy, but they couldn't find a venue. It's been nearly two weeks since they stormed the refuge to protest federal land management policies. The FBI still hasn't said whether it plans to intervene. The agency's wary of similar antigovernment standoffs that turned bloody in the 1990s. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, other standoffs have dragged on for months.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: This was NPR's top story 20 years ago.


HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The Freemen are an offshoot of the antigovernment militia groups active elsewhere.

SIEGLER: That's NPR's Howard Berkes reporting on the Freemen standoff in eastern Montana. Those self-described Christian patriots hold up on a remote ranch, shun federal law and any government control of the land. They also threaten violence against local elected officials including Jo Anne Stanton, who spoke to NPR in 1996.


JO ANNE STANTON: They threatened to attach my property and my body if I did not do as they told me to.

SIEGLER: The standoff ended after 81 days, peacefully, with the militants later sentenced to federal prison. At the time, the FBI was praised. The memories of high-profile, bloody standoffs like Waco were still fresh. Well, today in Oregon, where local officials say they are also receiving threats and harassment, it's hard to know what the agency's plans are because no one is talking publicly. Jim Hammett is the former park superintendent of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon.

JIM HAMMETT: By holding their strategy close to the chest, it sort of makes people wonder, well, how long is this going on, and is anybody really even caring about this?

SIEGLER: Hammett is retired and still lives in the area, and he questions why the Oregon militants are coming and going as they please. They drive into town to shop and eat. One even is believed to have traveled back and forth between his home in Utah this week. That's a big difference from the Freemen in the 1990s. Hammett says the government's apparent strategy to wait this out and let it diffuse in Oregon may work, but a lot of federal employees want to return to their jobs now.

HAMMETT: One of the things I was thinking about it is how it might - must feel to be the biologist whose desk they are sitting at, whose file drawers are open and whose papers are scattered around their desks. She or he must feel extremely violated.

SIEGLER: There's also growing pressure coming from Congress. On the House floor this week, Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio complained that the lights and power are still on at the refuge.


PETER DEFAZIO: But you got to wonder if the lights are on or anybody's home down there at the Justice Department. Hello?

SIEGLER: DeFazio says the problems in his state started with the government's inaction against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy beginning in 2014. His cows continue to illegally graze on federal land, and DeFazio says this has bolstered the cause of the militants.


DEFAZIO: And now his sons are replicating that in my state of Oregon where we abide by the laws. Yeah, we disagree over a lot of federal policies, but we abide by the laws. It's time for the Justice Department to take some action. Wake up down there.

SIEGLER: The Justice Department has declined repeated requests for comment. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. 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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