It appears that we’ve got ourselves another militia standoff out West, this time in rural, eastern Oregon, where armed activists are taking issue with the federal government over control of a wildlife refuge and the fate of two ranchers who are supposed to be on the way to jail. Complicating the issue (at least in the eyes of the media) is the fact that the protest is being organized and led by three sons of Cliven Bundy, who I’m sure you all remember. A brief summary from the Washington Examiner.

Three of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons and what they claim are 150 militia members have occupied a federal building in eastern Oregon in order to keep two local ranchers out of prison, according to local reports.

The group is believed to be heavily-armed.

According to The Oregonian, the group seized the headquarters building at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about 50 miles outside Burns, Ore. The remote facility was closed and unoccupied at the time.

Bundy and his supporters were in Oregon after two men were scheduled to go to prison on Monday for setting fires on federal land, according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting. The case has caused a stir in eastern Oregon because the two men were charged under anti-terrorism laws.

While this case has obviously been simmering for a while, it swelled out of proportion over the last few days. At the heart of the matter are ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven. They were previously accused and convicted of arson for two fires which they set more than a decade ago which burned on parts of the federal wildlife refuge near their property. The first real dispute seems to have arisen over the nature and purpose of the fires, which the Hammonds claim were controlled and for reasonable purposes. (Washington Post)

Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit the fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.

The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.

Prosecutors disagreed with their explanation. Details on this are rather fuzzy, but at least some on the government side believe that one of the blazes was set as a deliberate case of arson to destroy evidence of illegal taking of game. (More on that stupid charge in a moment.) The other seemed to be a small controlled burn which got out of control during a dry period when fires were banned and it spread over into federal territory. John Hawkins at Right Wing News raises some questions about both the charges and the response which may cast the Hammonds in at least a slightly less sympathetic light, while still acknowledging that the government went way overboard here.

There were two fires involved. The first sounds like a straight up arson designed to cover up poaching. The second one sounded like it was merely irresponsible: A fire set while there was a burn ban that made it onto government property. That being said, the judge in the initial case thought the mandatory five year sentences were too harsh for the crimes committed. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the legal authority to reduce those sentences and both men were re-sentenced to jail.

Intelligent people can differ over whether the sentences are fair and of course, a peaceful protest is always fine. However, taking over a government building and trying to provoke a violent government response is so irresponsible that it borders on insane.

I was listening to an interview with one of the Bundys conducted by CNN’s Victor Blackwell this morning and there seem to be two almost completely unrelated issues at stake here. One is the case of the Hammonds. Clearly the protesters feel that the government has come down too hard on them and I completely agree. Even if the facts are as the prosecutors described them, this is pretty minor as far as “arson” goes and the men have already served time in jail. Why were they charged under terror related laws? There’s probably some sort of case to be made here about mandatory minimum sentences, but the other side of the coin is the fact that the Hammonds were (and presumably still are) not planning on defying the government and are ready to go back to jail tomorrow. If they aren’t hiding out with the militia at the wildlife refuge, that part of the showdown seems rather pointless.

The second point that Bundy and his followers are making seems to be that the federal government has unlawfully taken control of this land as a wildlife refuge and that the ranchers should be free to make use of it. In that regard, any sort of federal charges would have been inappropriate to begin with, though the courts clearly can’t (and won’t) see it that way. Look… I’ll be the first to agree that the government sets aside and lays claim to far too much land. Also, when it comes to the matter of “poaching” on federal land I have a huge problem with the idea of Washington restricting the right of people to feed themselves by taking game in The King’s Forrest and streams. I’d like to see a concerted national effort to begin discussing the federal surrender of at least some of these lands to the states and a revamping of hunting and fishing license laws, along with federal restrictions on trapping, hunting and fishing.

But… with all of that said, I’m with John Hawkins on this one. This is crazy. (And I know that’s not going to sit well with those regularly spoiling for a fight with the feds.) Taking armed troops in to seize control of a federal building and essentially daring the government to come get you is pretty much the course of last resort. This is the fight you choose to draw the line in the sand over? If the Hammonds aren’t seeking protection and are planning to continue their appeal through the normal legal channels, this armed insurrection isn’t being done for their benefit. If you’re doing it to try to stop the feds from exercising control over a wildlife refuge, well… nope. Sorry. Still crazy.

Harness all of that energy and enthusiasm into getting a legal team to begin challenging the federal government in court over it. It will be a long, hard slog, but you’ll garner a tremendous amount of support around the nation, particularly among conservatives and libertarians. Taking up arms over this will produce just the opposite result. It’s time to get the troops out of the building before somebody gets hurt and this turns into a literally bloody debacle.

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