Neighboring sheriff endorses Oregon militants as they negotiate withdrawal with Feds

© Jim Urquhart
An armed group that has been occupying an Oregon federal wildlife refuge for 24 days is said to be negotiating a withdrawal with the FBI. Other reports claim the group has aligned with a neighboring county sheriff to launch a “shadow government.”

The armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon has entered its fourth week. Local, state, and federal law enforcement have gathered to figure out how to deal with the occupation instigated by an activist group that opposes federal land policy.

Initially, the group began their protest by announcing they were seeking the release of Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers imprisoned for five years for fires they had set on their own land that spread to government property.

In an unusual show of support, the sheriff of neighboring Grant County, Glenn Palmer, said that freeing the father and son ranching team from prison “would be a start in ending the standoff.”

“I just pray to God that cooler heads prevail and no one gets killed,” Palmer said in a statement to The Oregonian. The sheriff’s endorsement “stunned law enforcement officials,” the news outlet said, adding that he had met with leaders of the occupation several times.

Palmer is said to be aligned with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a nonprofit that believes the Constitution imposes strict limitations on the federal government. He serves on the advisory board.

The Oregonian said Palmer has often spoken critically of the federal government, particularly the US Forest Service, which owns a large amount of land in Grant County.

“The only thing that is out of control is the federal government,” Palmer said in a 2011 speech to a California group considering constitutional issues. “I am not a public employee. I am a public servant,” said Palmer.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe told the Oregonian that Palmer’s position is not helping.

“If anything, it hampers the effort to end this,” Wolfe said.

One of the group’s other demands is the return of the refuge to Harney County, while their latest goal is to make the county a crucible of a rebellion that will “honor and restore the Constitution of the United States,” which they say would mean returning all federally controlled land to state and local control as a step towards abolishing most federal powers and institutions.

Federal authorities, with operational headquarters nearly a half-hour’s drive away from Burns, have taken a hands-off approach to the occupation, saying they want a peaceful resolution, according to the Associated Press. Their lack of action has frustrated some residents, who have staged counter protests at the refuge displaying signs telling the group to go home.

One of the armed group’s leaders, Ammon Bundy, is reported to have been in contact with an FBI negotiator and local law enforcement.

A community meeting in Burns that was planned for Monday evening was cancelled after the armed group threatened to protest and block the event.

On Saturday, the armed group held an event that saw ranchers tearing up or burning their grazing contracts with the government.

“We’ve been here three weeks now, we’ve been teaching the principles of the Constitution of the United States, the supreme law of the land,” said Ryan Bundy, according to Raw Story, as he unfurled a large sign bearing the Harney County seal and a map of the state of Oregon with text reading, “Harney County Land: Welcome and Enjoy a Free land by the People.”

Nine ranchers in two states, including an ex-con, have renounced their grazing privileges and promised to carry out more symbolic actions aimed at thwarting federal control of ranchland. Organizers are also said to be trying to convince residents of neighboring Grant County to help them shake off federal ownership in Harney County.

On Tuesday evening, the armed group plan to hold a public meeting at the John Day Senior Center in Grant County, where they will urge residents to form a Committee of Safety. Bundy helped set up a Committee of Safety in Harney County on December 15 some two weeks before the refuge takeover.

The use of a Committee of Safety is based on frontier colonial militias that used them to safeguard property and lives from so-called “savages.” The move was described by Raw Story as an “extralegal maneuver that would essentially form a shadow government in anticipation of the elected government’s failure or removal.”

It’s not clear what plans the militants have for Grant County, or if enough residents will agree to go along with Bundy’s plot.

Two days after the Malheur Refuge was taken over, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors extremist groups in the US, said that the far-right, anti-government militia movement has been expanding. It identified 276 militia groups, up from 202 in 2014, representing a 37 percent increase.

The militia groups typically adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines and subscribe to “groundless conspiracy theories” about the federal government, said the SPLC. The Center also pointed out that no one has been held accountable for taking up arms against the federal government at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada – a fact that it claims has just emboldened extremists.

“When the federal government was stopped from enforcing the law at gunpoint, it energized the entire movement,” Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said. “The fact is, Bundy is still a free man and has not paid the money he owes to the federal government – and the militiamen who aimed rifles at federal agents have gotten away with it.”