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Oregon standoff: Are these patriots or domestic terrorists?

Groups promising a long-term occupation took over headquarters at Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon on Saturday, following nearby protests against two ranchers' prison sentences. 

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    A sign near Burns, Oregon in mid-December reflects some residents' sentiment against out-of-town armed protesters opposing two local ranchers' sentences for burning federal land. On January 2, an armed group took headquarters at a nearby federal wildlife refuge.
    Les Zaitz/ The Oregonian via AP
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An armed group led by the son of Cliven Bundy, whose 2014 standoff against the Bureau of Land Management rallied opponents of federal land ownership, has taken its cause to rural Oregon, where an unknown number of supporters took over the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday.

"Calling all freedom loving people to come to Harney County Oregon, come to the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge," the Bundy Ranch Facebook page said in a post sharing video of Ammon Bundy, who says he is protesting federal "overreach," "this taking of the people's land and resources."

"This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here," Mr. Bundy said. "And we're planning on staying here for several years."

But reactions to Bundy, his supporters, and the increasingly visible land-rights movement they represent have differed sharply among fellow ranchers, politicians, and the general public, with some states-rights advocates hailing them as heroes, while others are calling them domestic terrorists. 

The family whose prison sentences brought Bundy and his supporters to Burns, Ore., a 7,000-person county seat about an hour's drive from Malheur, have not publicly supported the group's takeover. Roughly 300 people marched in Burns on Jan. 2, protesting a judge's decision to re-imprison local residents Dwight Hammond, age 73, and his son Steven Hammond, age 43. (Despite the Hammonds' lack of vocal support for the takeover, Oregon Live reports that the family met privately with Bundy last month.

Three years ago, the pair served brief sentences for arson on federal land. But government lawyers challenged the sentencing, noting that under federal law that crime carries a minimum five-year sentence. In October, Oregon's chief federal judge agreed, and ordered the two to surrender to the US Bureau of Prisons by January 4 to complete their sentences.

The Hammonds say they set the fires as a preventative measure, to protect their lands from wildfire and to kill invasive plants. Prosecutors say that the blaze was meant to cover up illegal hunting, according to local station KTVZ. 

Marchers from near and far gathered in Burns to protest their sentences, and many voiced opinions against what they consider tyrannical federal control of lands. The group ended at the Hammonds' home, where they thanked marchers for support. 

"See you in five years," the elder Mr. Hammond told them, according to KTVZ. The father and son plan to turn themselves in at a California prison on Monday.

Federal land control has been a particularly contentious issue in Western states for over a century, and a handful are now pushing Washington to return ownership to the states. According to the Congressional Research Service, federal agencies manage 47 percent of land in the Lower 48's Western states, as well as 62 percent of Alaska, compared to mostly single-digit percentages in Eastern states.

In Nevada, the federal government owns more than 80 percent of land, the highest in the nation. Much of that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But some ranchers, like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, assert that the Bureau's practices unjustly harm their ability to make a living off the land.

"As far as I'm concerned, the BLM don't exist," Mr. Bundy told High County News in April 2014, amid a tense standoff with the agency, which was trying to confiscate cattle he had been illegally grazing on public land for two decades. According to the agency, Bundy owed more than $1 million in land-usage fees.

Like many ranchers, including the Hammonds, Bundy complained of new environmental rules, such as protections for the endangered desert tortoise, that led agencies to limit the time and space for grazing. Bundy's sympathizers, including several militias, were drawn to the cause, forcing the agency to cancel the cattle round-up out of safety concerns.

While Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) called Bundy's crowd "domestic terrorists," other politicians, such as the state's Republican senator, Dean Heller, praised them. Many figures, however, walked back their support after Bundy made inflammatory racial comments, wondering if African-Americans were better off under slavery.

Others worried about the anti-government mindset Bundy and his supporters displayed. 

"This was a watershed moment, there’s no question," Jerry Bruckhart, co-founder of a state militia coalition, Operation Mutual Aid, told Vocativ at the time. "It’s going to be recorded in history – assuming we can keep up the pressure – as the beginning of the counter-revolution."

The elder Mr. Bundy says he did not have a direct role planning the Oregon takeover, led by his son Ammon. His son and his supporters, however, voice similar arguments.

The younger Mr. Bundy accused the wildlife refuge of growing "at the expense of the ranchers and miners," and claimed that its expansion had driven Harney County into poverty, according to CNN. Census figures show that the median household income is $38,113; 15.6 percent of residents hold a college degree or higher.

The size of the takeover was unclear. Bundy said that protesters hope to resolve the conflict peacefully, but would use force if necessary to defend themselves. 

A Saturday statement from Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said that "multiple agencies" are "working on a solution," and asked locals to stay away from the refuge. Local schools will be closed through January 11. 

As Bundy's brother, Ryan, said in a phone interview with Oregon Live, 

The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.... What we're doing is not rebellious. What we're doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

But many in Burns, and across the West, say they resent the way that a small movement has come to represent their frustrations with federal land management. The town had been tense leading up to Saturday's protests, with many residents sympathetic, but concerned about the risk of violence.

"A lot of the people who work at the BLM are of families of the community," rancher Gary Marshall told Oregon Public Broadcasting, saying 50 percent of County residents are employed by the government. "It’s not in any way a 'them against us' kind of a scenario here."

According to Oregonian reporter Les Zaitz, Ammon Bundy has scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. Sunday. 

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