Leader of armed group wants land transfer, then will go home

A member of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, walks to the front gate Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, near Burns, Ore. Law enforcement had yet to take any action Tuesday against the group numbering close to two dozen who are upset over federal land policy. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

BURNS, Ore. (AP) — A leader of the small, armed group that is occupying a remote national wildlife preserve in Oregon said Tuesday that they will go home when a plan is in place to turn over management of federal lands to locals.

Ammon Bundy told reporters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that ranchers, loggers and farmers should have control of federal land — a common refrain in a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.

“It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching,” said the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights.

The younger Bundy’s anti-government group is critical of federal land stewardship, but environmentalists and others say U.S. officials should keep control for the broadest possible benefit to business, recreation and the environment.

The armed activists seized the refuge about 300 miles from Portland on Saturday night. Roughly 20 people bundled in camouflage, ear muffs and cowboy hats are occupying the bleak, high desert of eastern Oregon.

As the takeover entered its third day, authorities had not moved in and had not shut off power to the refuge, Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum said, adding that he was eager to go home and tend to his cattle.

“If they cut it off, that would be such a crying shame, all the pipes would freeze,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, a pickup truck blocked the entrance to the preserve, and a man looked out over the snowy grounds from a watchtower.

Ammon Bundy offered few specifics about the group’s plan to get the land turned over to local control, but Finicum said the activists would examine the underlying land ownership transactions to begin to “unwind it.”

Bundy said the group felt it had the support of the local community. But the county sheriff has told the activists to go home, and many locals don’t want the group here, fearing they may bring trouble. A community meeting was scheduled for Wednesday.

So far, law enforcement has not taken action against the activists whose rallying cry is the imprisonment of father-and-son ranchers who set fire to federal land.

“These guys are out in the middle of nowhere, and they haven’t threatened anybody that I know of,” said Jim Glennon, a longtime police commander who now owns the Illinois-based law enforcement training organization Calibre Press. “There’s no hurry.”

Some observers have complained, suggesting the government’s response would have been swifter and more severe had the occupants been Muslim or other minorities.

The group calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom said it wants an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, reported back to prison Monday.

The Hammonds, who have distanced themselves from the group, were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006, one of which was set to cover up deer poaching, according to prosecutors.

The men served no more than a year until an appeals court judge ruled the terms fell short of minimum sentences that require them to serve about four more years.

The takeover comes amid a dispute that dates back decades in the West, where the federal government owns about half of all land.

In the 1970s, Nevada and other states pushed for local control in what was known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Supporters wanted more land for cattle grazing, mining and timber harvesting.

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