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No move against armed protesters at Oregon wildlife refuge

Published 04/01/2016

Ammon Bundy, centre, speaks to reporters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (AP)
Ammon Bundy, centre, speaks to reporters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (AP)

US authorities are keeping their distance after armed anti-government protesters seized a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon as part of a decades-long fight over public land in the West.

The group came to the frozen high desert of eastern Oregon to protest over the prison sentences of two ranchers who set fire to federal land, but their ultimate goal is to turn over the property to local authorities so people can use it free of US oversight.

Federal authorities have so far not moved to take back Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Residents say they have not seen a large presence of officers, and the government's tactic generally is to monitor the situation from afar and leave the protesters as long as they do not show signs of violence.

That is how federal officials defused a high-profile 2014 stand-off with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing rights. Now Mr Bundy's two sons are leading the push in Oregon.

Ammon Bundy told reporters that the group wants authorities to look into claims that local ranchers have been intimidated by the federal government.

Mr Bundy, speaking at the refuge in Oregon, said the group calls itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and has sent a "demand for redress" to local, state and federal officials.

They want a response within five days. Mr Bundy did not say what the group would do if they get no response.

Reporters have seen about 20 people at the remote national facility.

The latest dispute traces its roots to the 1970s and the "Sagebrush Rebellion", a move by Western states like Nevada to increase local control over federal land. While ranchers and others complain of onerous federal rules, critics of the push for more local control have said the federal government should administer the public lands for the widest possible uses, including environmental and recreation.

Residents of the tiny town of Burns are concerned about the potential for violence.

If the situation turns violent, Mr Bundy contends that it will be because of the federal government's actions.

"I mean, we're here to restore order. We're here to restore rights, and that can go peacefully and easily," he said.

The ranchers whose cause has been the rallying cry are Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006. They served their original sentences - three months for Dwight and one year for Steven - but a judge ruled that the terms were too short under federal minimum sentencing laws.

Both men were ordered back to prison for about four years each. They have said they plan to turn themselves in.

Kendra M Matthews, a lawyer for the men, said they will seek clemency from President Barack Obama.

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