Nation

Evan Horowitz

Why have militia members seized a nature preserve in Oregon?

Men stand guard at an entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Princeton, Ore., Jan. 4, 2016. The small band of antigovernment protesters who took over some federal buildings in rural Oregon say they aim “to restore and defend the Constitution,” in particular the rights of ranchers, and set off a national movement, forcing the federal government to release its hold on vast tracts of Western land. (Jarod Opperman/The New York Times)
Jarod Opperman/The New York Times
Men stood guard at an entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on Monday.

A fringe group of armed militia members has seized a government building in the middle of a protected wildlife preserve in remote Oregon, pledging to forcibly resist any government effort to retake control.

Ultimately, the members’ hold on the preserve is likely to be short-lived, since the government can hardly tolerate an armed takeover of a public facility. In the days ahead, this eccentric militia action could escalate into a direct stand-off with law enforcement, or perhaps even a violent battle — with unpredictable political fallout.

If you’re wondering why a militia group would mount such a raid on a nature preserve designed to protect migratory birds, it’s all about the use of public land — more specifically, the limits placed on ranchers who rely on federal land as grazing space for cattle.

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The people who organized this raid are disaffected ranchers and like-minded supporters who are furious about what they see as excessive government regulation, and who see this wildlife preserve as a symbol of how government takes useful land out of the hands of the American people.

How did this happen?

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Militia members have been gathering in Burns, Ore., to support two local ranchers convicted of arson for setting fires on public land.

The ranchers had already spent time in jail for those acts, but a federal court recently ruled that the original sentence wasn’t long enough. Federal law has a stiff five-year mandatory minimum sentence for arson on public property and while the lower courts tried to buck that requirement and hand down a more lenient penalty, the federal government appealed to a higher court and won.

The ranchers were ordered to report back to jail this week, which inspired a peaceful protest in Burns on Saturday, with hundreds marching through town to express their anger over the extended prison sentences.

It was after that protest that a small, well-armed group headed to the nearby Malheur wildlife refuge, where they took control of the headquarters building, which had been left empty for the holiday weekend.

Who’s behind this raid?

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The ringleader is Ammon Bundy, son of the infamous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

Cliven Bundy came to prominence two years ago, when federal agents tried to seize his cattle, only to be repelled by armed militia members ready for a fight.

Ammon Bundy played a vital role in that 2014 stand-off, getting himself tasered in the process. And his decision to travel to Oregon and seize public property suggests he’s eager for round two.

With him in the Oregon nature preserve are his brother, Ryan, and a group of other hard-line militia leaders and supporters — perhaps numbering in the dozens.

What do the militia members want?

Nothing less than the end of the entire system of public, federally owned land.

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For decades now, Cliven Bundy has been arguing in court that the federal government has no authority to own land. And while Bundy himself isn’t involved in this latest incident, his children seem to have inherited his views.

Speaking via phone from within the Oregon nature preserve, Ryan Bundy told an Oregon newspaper that he hoped “the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.”

It also appears that the militia members are hoping to turn the wildlife refuge into a base of sorts, a place where supporters could come and join the movement, and where a first step could be taken to reclaim public land for private citizens.

Are they militants, militia members, terrorists, or something else?

A lot depends on how you see them.

Militia is a term many of these ranchers-turned-outlaws have embraced for themselves, as part of the tradition of armed and vigilant citizenry which dates to the American Revolution and is codified in the Second Amendment (“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”).

Calling them militants is slightly different, suggesting a greater eagerness for armed confrontation, while the term terrorist would imply that they’re actively trying to sow fear in order to further their political ideals.

Beyond the labels, though, there are also questions about whether law enforcementand the media — have treated these armed white ranchers differently than they treat armed black activists.

As an example, contrast the use of military equipment and tear gas on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., with the decision to back away from any conflict with Cliven Bundy, both in 2014 and now.

How will this end?

One reason law enforcement may be moving slowly in Oregon is that there are a lot of ways for this to go badly.

With decent planning and sufficient firepower, a direct assault on the wildlife preserve would almost certainly succeed. But given that the militia members inside are armed and trained, the fight could be bloody and the body count relatively high.

Then there’s the uncertain political fallout. When Cliven Bundy stared down federal agents in Nevada, his cause initially attracted a fair bit of support among conservatives, notably from Sean Hannity (until Bundy started making racist remarks).

It’s not impossible that something similar could happen this time around, with scenes of a full-scale government assault in Oregon galvanizing antigovernment activists, including among mainstream Republicans.

And with the presidential primaries right around the corner, the fallout could be chaotic.

In the end, though, the federal government simply can’t allow an armed group to occupy government facilities. It’s sedition, and it threatens the most basic prerogatives of the state, including the ability to enact and enforce laws.

But the end may take a while. So long as there are no hostages, and no further raids by the militias, there may be time to find a less violent, and more measured solution.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz