This story was updated at 8:15 a.m.
Key Western lawmakers yesterday sought to distance themselves from the armed militia that is occupying a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, while highlighting the state-federal tensions underlying the dispute.
Returning from the holiday recess to start the new legislative session, House Republicans said they understood the frustrations that led to one to two dozen armed protesters seizing the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, while calling for a peaceful end to the situation.
"I want it to end without violence, but I also understand the frustration and feelings people have working with land agencies," House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told E&E Daily last night. "They have been very heavy-handed."
Bishop also said he plans to review a resolution introduced yesterday by Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) condemning the siege (Greenwire, Jan. 5).
But he said he doubted his committee would hold a hearing focused on the siege but rather would continue its oversight of "what we feel is the abuse of individuals by the federal land management agencies, the poor decisions they have made."
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), a member of both the Western and Freedom caucuses, dismissed the armed protesters as a "sideshow," saying he was focused on the two members of the Hammond family who reported to prison this week to continue serving sentences for arson, which precipitated the standoff (Greenwire, Jan. 5).
"I'm more concerned about the families," Pearce told E&E Daily last night. "What they're doing on the wildlife refuge, I don't know if it helps or hurts, but it's a matter that it will incense you when you look at the circumstances surrounding the families. I mean I've watched the Forest Service, [Bureau of Land Management] set fires that burn out of control, burn tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of acres burning out of control, and they put these people in jail for five years, for 110, 120 acres."
Pressed on the armed protesters, Pearce declined to comment further.
"I consider that mostly a sideshow," he said. "I'm asking the Western Caucus to take a look at the action; I'm talking to the Freedom Caucus about 'look at the families,' let's talk about that."
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose district includes the wildlife refuge, also sought to steer the debate to what he portrayed as unfair prison sentences for the Hammonds, whom he said he's known for almost 20 years. "They're longtime responsible ranchers in Harney County," he said in a lengthy floor speech during which he choked up.
Saying he wanted his colleagues "to understand what drives people to do what's happening tonight in Harney County," Walden criticized federal actions in the county dating back 20 years.
"I've seen the impact of federal policies from the Clinton administration to the Obama administration," he said. "I have seen what happens when overzealous bureaucrats and agencies go beyond the law and clamp down on people. I have seen what courts have done, and I have seen the time for Congress to act and then it has not."
Noting that his district is 10 times the size of Rhode Island and larger than the state of Maryland, Walden said the federal government owns 72 percent of the land.
"But what people don't understand is the culture, the lifestyle of this great American West," he said, "and how much these ranchers care about the environment, about the future, about their children, about America and how much they believe in the Constitution" -- including the extent to which they'll defend it.
Emphasizing that he wasn't "defending armed takeovers," Walden said it's time for the protesters "to realize they've made their case and it's time for them to go home."
But ticking off a number of recent wildfires in the state that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in recent years, he noted that each of the imprisoned Hammonds will spend five years behind bars for burning a far smaller parcel of land.
"The Hammonds are in prison tonight for setting a backfire, that they admit to, that burned 139 acres," he said.
But sportsmen's groups yesterday sought to turn the focus back on the militiamen. In a joint statement released by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, eight groups called for authorities to "hold extremists accountable" for seizing public land.
"Many citizens of the West -- sportsmen and women included -- take issue with some public land management decisions, but there is a legitimate process, well-established by law, to provide significant opportunity for public input and influence on these decisions," the groups said.
"When an extreme minority uses lawlessness and threats of violence to occupy public land, it threatens the rights of many for the benefit of very few -- a profoundly un-American course of action," they said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) yesterday criticized the protesters, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. to note that democracies allow other methods to raise grievances.
"I think they're breaking the law," he told reporters. "They talk about the Constitution, wanting to honor it, but they ought to be honoring the law."
But Hoyer declined to label the militia as a terrorist group, as others have.
"I'm not going to characterize," he said. "They're breaking the law."
Reporter Hannah Hess contributed.