By Jonathan Allen and Jim Urquhart
BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - Residents of the Oregon town thrust into the spotlight after self-styled militiamen took over a U.S. wildlife refuge voiced sympathy for the jailed ranchers whose plight inspired the action but were critical of the armed protesters.
Saturday's takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon, marked the latest protest over federal management of public land in the West, long seen by conservatives in the region as an intrusion on individual rights.
Ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, who on Monday surrendered to serve longer prison terms for setting fires that spread to federal land, had been regulars at a town diner where residents were sympathetic and said they feared the federal government wanted to seize ranch lands for its own use.
"The BLM wants that land bad and they'll probably end up getting it," said Tim Slate, a butcher who said he had gone out to slaughter the Hammonds' cattle many times over the years, using an acronym for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "The federal government wants to take over the state of Oregon and turn it into a park."
Diners voiced skepticism about protest leader Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher who along with a large group of armed men successfully stared down federal agents in 2014 when the government attempted to confiscate his livestock because he refused to pay grazing fees.
"I don't think it's right to take over a public building," said James Arndt, a retired painter. "I'm kind of mixed about that."
He echoed other residents of the town of some 3,000 people about 280 miles (451 km) southeast of Portland, who viewed the occupation as the work of outside agitators. Lawyers from the Hammonds have sought to disassociate themselves from the occupiers, saying that the action did not represent their clients' will.
But Bundy said some locals had been stopping by with food for the occupiers.
"A particular rancher ... brought a very, very good pot of soup that was needed on a late night when we were very hungry," he said.
Authorities have closed schools for the week in the area out of concerns of possible violence, although so far the occupation has been peaceful.
'NOT ABOUT FEAR'
Bundy on Tuesday said his group, which has named itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, wanted to work with residents of Harney County to help them regain unfettered access to public lands for ranching and logging.
"We're not about fear, we're not about force, we're not about intimidation," Bundy told reporters at the refuge. "If the government is bringing that fear and intimidation, it needs to be checked and balanced."
Early in the occupation Bundy said that many of his supporters were armed, although members of the occupation have not been showing weapons in recent days.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward, in a statement on behalf of himself and County Judge Steven Grasty on Monday, asked group members to go home. He called a Tuesday afternoon meeting for county residents to discuss their concerns about the situation.
Neither protesters nor authorities have said how many people are involved in the occupation. About a dozen occupiers have been visible at the site.
The FBI said it was working with state and local law enforcement for a peaceful resolution and federal law enforcement officials have kept their distance from the wildlife refuge, which is closed to visitors. They are following U.S. policy guidelines instituted to prevent such standoffs from turning deadly as they did in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas in the early 1990s.
"It's not exactly clear what the motives or intentions are of the individuals who are involved in this particular situation. The speculation by some is that it's politically motivated," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday. "I certainly wouldn't want to say something from here that could be construed as inflaming that situation."
The success of the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch, likely emboldened the occupiers of the refuge, observers said.
"They forced the federal government at gunpoint to stand down. They won," said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.
"The group that's holed up there in Burns seems to think they're going to take that same idea to another level: You solve your issues over land usage or grazing fees or whatever by refusing to pay up and then using weapons to run cops off the land."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Andy Sullivan and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Victoria Cavaliere in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott)