BURNS — In this quiet, high desert town, frost covers the sagebrush and most people are staying indoors because of the below freezing temperatures.
Yet, tensions in this Eastern Oregon community are running high as two local ranchers prepare to go to prison. Dwight Hammond, and his son Steve were convicted of arson related to fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006.
Dwight Hammond and Steve Hammond were sentenced in accordance with federal anti-terrorism laws and are scheduled to report to prison on Monday. Their lawyer said both men will do so voluntarily.
As the Hammonds plan to leave for prison, many in Harney County are not happy about who is coming into Burns.
After a long appeals process involving the Hammonds’ arson charges, militiamen have started showing up in Harney County to protest the federal government. Many of these militiamen are supporters of Nevada rancher and anti-government fomenter Cliven Bundy, who led an armed standoff against Bureau of Land Management officers in 2014.
The militiamen coming to Burns said tying the Hammonds’ arson cases to anti-terrorism statutes are unjust federal oppression that violates the constitution.
Ryan Payne, an electrician from Montana, who wears a pistol on his hip said the Hammonds need to be defended from the federal government. "[The Hammonds] are being brutally oppressed," said Payne.
The Hammonds’ attorney has previously stated the militiamen showing up in Burns do not represent the ranchers. Still, militiamen like Payne continue to arrive.
“They can’t defend themselves, they can’t ask for help. It’s asking a sheep to all the sudden defend itself from the wolves," said Payne.
Some of the leaders of the militia are supporters of the Bundy family in Nevada. Cliven Bundy refused to pay the Bureau of Land Management more than a million dollars in cattle grazing fees.
What resulted was an armed standoff between the BLM and militiamen from around the U.S. who flocked to defend Bundy. Militiamen even shut down I-15 north of Las Vegas as part of the confrontation.
In YouTube videos posted over the past two months, Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon Bundy, has made similar statements about the Hammonds – that the family is "being silenced" by federal officers and prosecutors. In one online posting titled a "Redress of Grievances," Ammon Bundy alleges federal prosecutors are intimidating the Hammonds.
“We have obtained appalling evidence that the U.S. Attorney’s Office threatened the Hammond family with early detention and further punishment if the Hammond family continued to communicate with a certain individual,” Bundy writes. “This evidence…speaks against the U.S. Attorneys [sic] Office in their gross effort to infringe upon the Hammond’s right to free exercise of speech.”
In an interview with OPB, Cliven Bundy said the Hammonds reached out to his family during the past two months and asked for help.
“In public, they haven’t asked for our help,” Bundy told OPB. “In private, we’re still needed. I talked to Dwight Hammond…for probably close to an hour. His conclusion is basically, ‘I do not want to be shot in the head.’ He had fear that if he actually rejected what was going on, and stood up for the abuse in what was going on, there would be somebody who would actually kill him. Fear, is what their problem is.”
Spurred by outcry from the Bundy family, the militia organized a rally in support of the Hammonds for Saturday in Burns, calling out to self-described patriot groups from across the country.
They said it would be a peaceful march. Yet, threats are implied in many of the calls to protest from all quarters.
Ammon Bundy writes that if the Hammonds are imprisoned, “there will be some serious civil unrest.”
And militiaman Ryan Payne said he will do "whatever it takes” to support the Hammonds.
‘Militia Go Home'
The prospect of hundreds of out-of-towners who openly carry firearms concerns some residents in Burns.
Fliers with the message “Militia go home” hang on signposts downtown.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said he received death threat emails from people in other states after he told militia organizers he would not create a safe haven for the Hammonds to stay in Harney County.
"I haven’t slept a full night in close to two months now. I have a lot of anxiety," he said. But Sheriff Ward wants to protect his county.
"What we’ve been threatened with here is civil unrest and the insinuations of armed rebellion," said Sheriff Ward.
Cliven Bundy said if Sheriff Ward wanted to keep the protests away, he should have worked harder to get the Hammonds’ sentences reduced or vacated. “I believe that the local governments have failed these people,” Bundy said. “The sheriff, he has the duty to protect the life, liberty and property of his citizens. And I believe he has failed, totally here.”
Bundy told OPB the protest is meant to draw attention to the expanding power of federal and state governments, and that his sons are going, "for a good purpose.”
Even Bundy is unsure whether the protest is a good idea, and whether it’s proper for his family’s supporters to get involved. “I don’t quite understand how much they’re going to accomplish,” Bundy said. “I think of it this way: what business does the Bundy family have in Harney County, Oregon?"
"In one sense, I believe very much in local government, and local control, and local authority," Sheriff Ward said. To him, the militiamen are welcome to protest. But he doesn’t want to see the rally escalate. "We cannot have what happened at the Bundy Ranch here,” Ward said. “I won’t allow it from law enforcement and I won’t have it from citizens.”
There are some in Harney County who agree with the Bundy’s message that federal lands should be under local control. Many also said that the Hammonds’ five-year prison sentence is harsh.
Inspired by presentations from Ammon Bundy, some citizens formed the Harney County Committee of Safety, and plan to participate in the rally. "We aren't associated with the Bundy crew but we agree with a lot of things that they're doing," said committee member and rancher Melodi Molp. "I appreciate the Bundy's coming and enlightening us. But they are way more aggressive than what we want to do."
But rancher Gary Marshall said he’s offended by some the militia’s insinuation that Harney County residents need an education about the constitution or the role of the federal government.
"There’s plenty here in our community that are intelligent enough that we can think and decide for ourselves," said Marshall.
He pointed out that more than 50 percent of people employed in Harney County work for the government, and that there’s a collaborative, not an antagonistic spirit toward the federal workforce in Harney County.
"A lot of the people who work at the BLM are of families of the community," said Marshall. "It’s not in any way a 'them against us' kind of a scenario here."
‘They Do Not Have Anyone to Fight’
Like many in Burns, Candy Tiller hopes the rally on Saturday remains peaceful, and that her small community can get back to life as normal next week.
"I’m worried that there’s a trigger-happy idiot out there," said Tiller. She comes from a ranching family in Burns. "And maybe a law enforcement officer or somebody else makes a move that makes him think they’re pulling a gun and he’s going to shoot. It worries me. It brings me to tears. I don’t want that. I don’t want that for anybody."
She said she can’t remember anything close to this — a protest with outside militia — happening in Harney County. "This is crazy. This does not fit. These people need to go away," she said.
When the Hammonds leave for prison, Sheriff Ward said it's local people who will be here to support the rest of the Hammond family. "These folks from Montana and Michigan and Florida and Ohio—they’re not going to make sure that the family has firewood in the wintertime, and making sure that their hay gets put up," said Ward.
"It’s going to be members of this community that step up to that task. Whatever damage happens here, we'll be here to pick up the pieces."
But Cliven Bundy said he’s not worried about an armed standoff between law enforcement and his supporters. “I’m quite concerned of them going up there into the cold weather, and facing the elements,” Bundy said. “If the Hammonds won’t stand up for their rights…if the sheriff and the county commissioners won’t stand up for their rights…the people who are there as protesters, as patriots, they do not have anybody to fight.”