PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The man behind the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge comes from a Mormon family that has been challenging government authority for at least two decades.
Ammon Bundy, like his father in previous confrontations, says he is following directions from God and invokes his family’s faith when explaining the anti-government movement he is attempting to lead.
In March 2014, Cliven Bundy was at the center of an armed standoff with federal officials over grazing rights on government land. Federal officials backed away from seizing the Nevada rancher’s cattle, but the dispute remains unresolved, and the Bureau of Land Management says the family has not made payments toward a $1.1 million grazing fee and penalty bill.
Now Cliven Bundy’s son has put himself in the spotlight, this time in Oregon in a dispute over someone else’s ranching operation. His armed group is pressing federal authorities to turn over government land to local control.
Ammon Bundy came to Oregon hoping to rally support behind his cause, but his tactics have been broadly rejected by many locals, by the state’s main ranching group and by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which the Bundy family has belonged to for generations.
In a statement issued Monday, Mormon leaders said the Oregon land dispute “is not a church matter,” but they condemned the seizure and said they were “deeply troubled” by reports that suggest the armed group is acting “based on Scriptural principles.”
The ranchers that Ammon Bundy came to defend rejected his assistance and on Monday voluntarily surrendered to serve a federal prison term on a 2012 conviction on charges of committing arson on federal land.
A leader of the group Oath Keepers — past and present members of the military, first-responders and police officers who pledge to uphold the Constitution — issued a statement saying Ammon Bundy has gone too far. Many Oath Keepers were at the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff in Nevada.
But in Oregon, Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes said, Ammon Bundy had picked the wrong battle.
“We cannot force ourselves or our protection on people who do not want it,” Rhodes said last week on the group’s website.
Speaking through their attorney, Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven said they preferred to turn themselves in and serve out their sentence.
“And that clear statement of their intent should be the end of the discussion on this,” Rhodes said.
Ammon Bundy has said he had never heard of the Hammond case until his father mentioned it to him. The Hammonds were convicted three years ago of setting fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006. One of the blazes was set to cover up deer poaching, according to prosecutors.
The men served no more than a year until an appeals court judge ruled that the terms fell short of minimum sentences requiring them to serve about four more years.
Ammon Bundy said he prayed about the matter and “clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds.”
The Hammonds said they lit the fires to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.
“I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do,” Bundy said in a YouTube video posted last week in which he appeals to people to join him in Oregon to protest the treatment of the Hammonds.
In the 2014 showdown with federal authorities in Nevada, Cliven Bundy also justified his actions in religious terms, saying that he decided to challenge federal agents after praying for guidance.
Their ideology aligns with a strain of anti-government thinking that was espoused by some church thought leaders during the Cold War. But it is rejected by mainstream Mormons today, according to Matthew Bowman, a professor of American religion at Henderson State University in Arkansas.
Still, whether to submit to church leaders or follow a personal conviction remains “a deep and central tension within Mormon doctrine and culture,” Bowman said.
The Bundy family’s dispute with federal authorities dates to 1993, when land managers in Nevada cited concern for the federally protected desert tortoise and capped Cliven Bundy’s herd at 150 animals on a 250-square-mile allotment of land. Officials later revoked Bundy’s grazing rights completely. Federal officials’ attempts to round up the cattle from the arid habitat 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas were called off in an effort to avoid bloodshed.
The 2014 standoff — and the current one in Oregon — are continuations of a decades-long fight over public lands in the West. Many people living in rural areas say their efforts to make a living have been hurt by federal policies regulating the use of government lands.
Conservation groups counter that federal agencies are a better choice than states to manage public lands. That’s because the agencies can authorize the land for multiple uses, such as mining, grazing or recreation, while many Western states are constitutionally obligated to use lands they manage for the most lucrative purpose — often mining.
“Certainly the folks that live close to these places have a very legitimate voice in this debate. But what is unique about this national land system is that everyone gets to participate,” said Jessica Goad, advocacy director for the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities.
Many locals agree with Ammon Bundy that the second Hammond sentence was too harsh, considering the crime. But they disapprove of Bundy’s occupation and fear it could lead to violence.
Those concerns were shared by John O’Keeffe, president of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, who said Monday that his group “does not support illegal activity taken against the government.”
Ammon Bundy himself has benefited from federal programs. Records show that in 2010 he borrowed $530,000 through the Small Business Administration for his company, Valet Fleet Service LLC. On Tuesday, he justified the loan by saying he is not anti-government but is opposed to federal policies that go against the people’s will.
Associated Press Writer Michelle Rindels reported from Carson City, Nevada.