The group of armed men who led a convoy through Harney County Saturday aren't actually new. They were here before Ammon Bundy came to town, and they say they want the armed occupiers to leave the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
But their goals are similar to those of the refuge occupiers. The
includes a number of local groups that share goals of defending the Constitution, preparing communities for disaster and limiting the authority of a government they believe is too large.
Some arrived in Harney County in November and began meeting with community members as well as Dwight and Steven Hammond, the father and son convicted of arson on federal lands. The Pacific Patriots Network was the group that organized the Jan. 2 rally in support of the Hammonds, protesting the ranchers' five-year prison sentences. Joseph Rice, one of the original founders of the Pacific Patriots Network, said the militant group led by Ammon Bundy split off from the rally to take over the refuge.
"The rally was hijacked," Rice said. "We do not condone (the occupation). We do not endorse it. It was never part of our plan. We were here for the Hammonds."
The network's broader goals are similar to those of the refuge occupiers — they want local control over federal lands, and, in particular, they want the Malheur refuge lands turned over to Harney County and the Burns Paiute tribe.
Now they want to serve as moderators between law enforcement and the occupiers of the refuge. They led an armed convoy through Harney County on Saturday, with stops at the occupied refuge, law enforcement and the county courthouse, delivering "
." They said they want parties to dialogue peacefully. At each stop, they placed armed men at perimeter points to stand guard for “personal safety,” Rice said.
"We put ourselves and inserted ourselves as a buffer between the government authorities and the refuge authorities as a neutral moderating space,” Rice said. "We want to see cooler heads prevail, we want to see people step down the rhetoric, we want to see an open dialogue and discussion."
Rice said the people of Harney County deserve dialogue and a resolution.
"Holding press conferences and dialing up rhetoric is not going to end in any resolves," Rice said, referring to the refuge occupiers.
But Rice also said that he appreciates how the occupation has focused attention on issues of federal land management.
The Patriots Network includes local and national Oath Keepers, a group of veterans as well as former military and police members who see it as their role to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic" — a phrase that comes from the oath taken by military and law enforcement personnel when they pledge to serve.
Oath Keepers are also known for leading a monthlong armed demonstration at a Bureau of Land Management office in Southern Oregon in April of last year, over a contested claim of the Sugar Pine mine. Members of the Central Oregon arm of the Oath Keepers also took it upon themselves to stand guard at the Bend military recruitment center in July after the deadly shooting at a U.S. military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Brandon Curtiss is president of 3% of Idaho, one of the member groups of the network. The group's name refers to the percentage of Americans they say fought in the American Revolution. At a Friday meeting of the Harney County Committee of Safety, Curtiss told OPB they were here to help county residents gain control of federal land.
“If you look at the Constitution,” he said, “the land actually belongs to county or the state, unless it’s properly ceded. There’s a process for that and those processes aren’t happening.”
The 3% of Idaho Facebook group said they "are committed to the restoration of the Founders' Republic and the defense of the Constitution and ourselves." They also list the vague goal to "keep ourselves at a constant state of readiness and preparedness so that we may be ready when the time comes."
Now the Pacific Patriots Network said they plan to stay in Harney County as an "overwatch," until the refuge occupiers leave and the situation is resolved.
"We will constantly maintain a presence," Rice said. "Our teams will be here for the duration."
Dave Blanchard contributed to this report.