How the Feds Can Peacefully Resolve the Armed Standoff in Burns, Oregon

Patches on the sleeve of a militiaman at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 4. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The armed standoff between federal and local authorities and right-wing militants at a national wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon, continued for a third day on Monday, as both sides remained eerily quiet. The militants, who traveled to Oregon to demand a lighter sentence for two ranchers convicted of arson remain holed up in a federal building; the feds remain holed up somewhere else, presumably trying to figure out what the hell to do.

Depending on how you see it, the authorities are either turning a blind, racist eye to a hostile takeover of federal property by a group of mostly white, self-styled militiamen or they're prudently trying to stave off another Ruby Ridge, the infamous 1992 armed standoff between federal agents and right wing extremists in Idaho, which resulted in an FBI sniper killing a woman as she held her baby in her arms. (Of course, if you sympathize with the militants, then this is simply the next phase of a long-running noble rebellion against the tyrannical federal government.)

On Saturday the armed protesters stormed the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, to inveigh against the five-year prison sentences of two ranchers convicted of setting wildfires on federal lands near their ranch in 2001 and 2006. They plan to occupy the refuge indefinitely until the ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, are given a more lenient sentence. Leading the effort: Ammon Bundy, a son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who mounted his own armed standoff in 2014 against the federal government after refusing to pay more than $1 million in fines and grazing fees. While the younger Bundy says he and his cohorts don't intend to shoot anyone unless they're fired upon first, he also says they're fully prepared to die and have urged sympathizers across the country to join them.

Experts say the move by the protesters is part of a long-standing conflict between ranchers and the U.S. government about who owns—and taxes—public land in states throughout the west. Many point to the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement during the 1970s and 1980s, as the first pushback against growing federal control of public lands. In recent years, critics say militants have been threatening government employees working on federal land from as far north as Washington to as far south as Texas. There are now thousands of acres of public land "where the federal government doesn't dare tread, because of the threat of violence," says Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Birmingham, Alabama-based nonprofit that tracks extremist groups in America. "They say they want to take land back from the federal government, and that's working, to some extent. These places are becoming essentially stateless."

So far, the response from local and federal authorities has been muted. The FBI released a statement Sunday saying it's working with the Harney County Sheriff's Office, Oregon State police and other agencies to "bring a peaceful resolution to the situation," and the feds are the lead agency on the scene. Sheriff David M. Ward also released a statement on Sunday warning that the group is here "to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States."

And yet, neither the sheriff nor the federal government has decided to storm the building and arrest the armed occupants, a decision that critics say would be hard to imagine if Islamic extremists occupied a federal building. "If there was a standoff like this that was ISIS-inspired, they would have sent in the troops," says Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for public employees. "There should be an appropriate law enforcement response that removes them right away, and they should be vigorously prosecuted."

But the feds have good reason to lay low, a former Department of Justice Official tells Newsweek, on the condition of anonymity. Sending in the National Guard right now would only feed the group's claims of federal tyranny, the source says. The smart move is to let it at least appear that the sheriff is the one running the show. "The sheriff has so far been the face of law enforcement," the source says, "as opposed to the feds coming in and saying 'get the hell out of our building or we're going to kill you.' That's really smart. It's the right thing to do, whether it's by accident or on purpose. It denies them the Bundy-vs.-the-Feds narrative."

"What I would do is see if I could get all the sheriffs in the state to show up and to publicly state that this is not how we should resolve our challenges with the federal government," the source adds. "Then maybe you turn the property over to the county, negotiate with the militia to give it up, and then the sheriff gives it back to the feds. Sheriff looks great, feds look great for showing restraint, the idiots can save face and say they didn't give it to the feds."

That may be a wise tactic, but it's a frustrating one for those who see hypocrisy in the government's response. Beirich agrees that the feds are wise to be cautious with an armed group, and that it's smart to let the local sheriff lead the way. "People in the anti-government movement believe in the theory that the sheriff is the highest official in the land, and that they should only submit to county officials," she says.

But she also says the standoff in Burns is the direct outgrowth of federal inaction during the 2014 Bundy showdown in Nevada. Even after that died down, federal officials made no attempt to arrest the elder Bundy or those who by pointed guns at federal agents. "You don't need people getting killed over cattle and grazing rights, but after that there was ample opportunity to get Bundy in a police car and make him pay," Beirich says. "When you let people get away with pointing guns at federal law enforcement, they're emboldened."

Today, Ruch says there's a 200-square-mile area outside of Bunkerville, Nevada, that has become a complete no man's land, where area landowners have barred federal biologists access to study the impact of European-bred cattle grazing on a desert landscape on National Park land. "Having cattle graze in the desert is ecologically just nuts," Ruch says. "But there's a feeling of entitlement to this land by these private individuals who want to use it to timber and mine without any oversight. It strikes me as anarchy."

So what's the end game? For the militants, it's finding a way to continue taking control of public lands, both in Oregon and other states. For the government, the goal is to end the Burns standoff without killing anyone. The key, the former DOJ source says, is to paint this standoff as an unwelcome invasion of Harney County by outside forces with their own political interests.

"If you can construct that narrative," the source says, "they lose.