SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The armed situation at the federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon has dragged on now for more than a week. To try to understand what's going on in Oregon, we're going to take a look now at the connection between the armed antigovernment occupiers and Cliven Bundy. Cliven Bundy is the Nevada rancher who owes the federal government more than a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees and other fines. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Burns, Ore.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Cliven Bundy's son Ammon has emerged as the occupiers de facto leader. Most days, the soft-spoken Bundy steps to a bank of microphones and speaks passionately about the plight of local cattle ranchers who he says are being forced off this refuge.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMMON BUNDY: What are we to do? Are we to just go home and allow these things to become the normal? Or do we stand because we love our neighbors, because we love this country?
SIEGLER: There's a parallel here to the armed standoff at the Bundy family ranch east of Las Vegas in 2014. Then, Cliven Buncy took to the microphones daily, espousing his antigovernment views and declaring victory after an armed standoff led the government to scrap its plans to round up his cattle. A year and half later, there still have been no charges filed against Bundy by either the Department of Justice or the Bureau of Land Management. In fact, much of the environmentally sensitive federal land around his ranch is still largely going unmanaged and unpatrolled.
RICK SMITH: It probably has exacerbated the situation.
SIEGLER: Rick Smith spent most of his career with the National Park Service, including a 15-year stint in law enforcement. He says the inaction by the federal government against Bundy is helping bolster the cause of antigovernment militants elsewhere in the West, namely Harney County, Ore.
SMITH: As a former government employee, they're talking about overthrowing me.
SIEGLER: Smith is the only one making this assertion. A 2014 report by the Department of Homeland Security warned that the BLM's inaction would lead to more armed confrontations like we've seen this past week, not to mention several previous ones in Oregon, Montana and Utah. On Bundy, the BLM continues to say only that the agency is pursuing justice.
RICK POCKER: Sometimes the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they still grind. And under these circumstances, perhaps the government, Department of Justice and BLM is being more cautious about how they proceed.
SIEGLER: Rick Pocker was U.S. attorney for Nevada in the 1980s and early '90s during the last spike in anti-federal government activity in the West. While many of the frustrations about land management are similar today, Pocker says there's a big difference.
POCKER: The groups have a certain sophistication to them that was missing back then. It isn't as in your face and extremist as some of the folks I dealt with in the late '80s.
SIEGLER: For instance, the occupiers here in Oregon are active on social media, and they often sound prepped. But the antigovernment message is the same, and they're heavily armed. Pocker says it would be a huge miscalculation on their part to feel emboldened.
POCKER: If their feeling is that because the government is more willing to talk to them now than maybe in the past that that gives them leverage - got to think that through carefully.
SIEGLER: This week, Ammon Bundy met with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward briefly. Like a lot of people here, Ward has said he too has frustrations about how the federal government is treating ranchers. But he sharply condemned the occupiers. He offered to escort them out of the county. A defiant Ammon Bundy has so far declined.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BUNDY: We will take the offer, but not yet. And we will go out of this state and out of this county as free men.
SIEGLER: That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Rick Smith, the retired National Park Service law enforcement officer, wonders why the federal government hasn't started doing some little things.
SMITH: If I were the manager there, I'd turn off the heat and power and everything else and let them sit there in the cold and dark.
SIEGLER: There's no indication that has happened yet either. Yesterday, the garbage truck did arrive for its regularly scheduled Friday pickup. Still, not exactly business as usual at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Burns, Ore.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.