ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Federal prosecutors were handed a surprise verdict in Oregon yesterday. A jury in Portland acquitted militia leader Ammon Bundy and his followers on charges related to the armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. We're going to hear from one of the defendants in a moment. But first, NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on concerns that the not guilty verdict will embolden other anti-government protesters.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge unfolded live on 24-hour cable news in January and February of this year. The militia leader, Ammon Bundy, appeared almost daily before the cameras at the snowy entrance to the headquarters and visitor center.
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AMMON BUNDY: Until the people can stand on their own and begin to fight this fight without the fear and intimidation, without the chains that are upon them. Until they can do that, we will be here for them.
SIEGLER: Bundy and the other militants filmed and took pictures of themselves occupying government offices and computers and openly carrying guns on federal property. And then the dramatic crescendo with one of the last holdouts, David Fry, was streamed live on YouTube.
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DAVID FRY: Unless my grievances are heard, I will not come out.
SIEGLER: It was an extraordinary, if bizarre end to what at the time seemed like an obvious documentation of violations of federal law. That might explain why today, many people closely affected by the 41-day occupation are at a loss for words.
LIZ APPELMAN: I felt like I was slugged in the stomach.
SIEGLER: This is Liz Appelman, a retired Bureau of Land Management employee in Burns, Ore., the closest town to the refuge. She told Oregon Public Broadcasting she's sickened that the Bundys aren't paying for what they did to her community. Burns is a small town in remote eastern Oregon. Its main industry used to be logging, now it's ranching. And the occupation ripped apart the community. Families were split. Friendships ended.
APPELMAN: A lot of people are angry. They've been crying. They've been mad. They just - they don't understand. And they're afraid they're going to come back. You know, and that's a horrific thought, that we can go through this again.
SIEGLER: Many former federal employees say the surprise verdict could embolden more anti-government acts targeting federal facilities across the western U.S., where often federal employees work in isolated, remote locations.
Back when the Bundys were originally arrested, the FBI and later federal prosecutors were praised for taking a softer approach, letting the militants compile their own evidence against themselves in the media. And it was widely thought that the government had a slam dunk case.
KEN WHITE: It may be an issue of how the government charged it and the defense successfully telling the story that was more compelling to the jurors.
SIEGLER: Ken White is a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. He says a charge like federal conspiracy can seem cut and dry. The defendants were accused of conspiring to impede federal workers from carrying out their jobs. But he says it can also open the door to other things like intent, which is a gray area.
WHITE: The jury may have accepted the defense's argument that their intent was not to impede anyone, but their intent was to express themselves, to voice their opposition to what was going on to a local prosecution and to federal control of land in general.
SIEGLER: This verdict also appears to have moved the needle some for those who want to see vast swaths of federal public land turned over to local control or private hands. And that's a troubling proposition to conservationists and hunters like Mark Heckert.
MARK HECKERT: Because I don't have $50,000 to go hunt in Texas somewhere.
SIEGLER: Heckert drove down from his home in Washington state last winter to protest the armed occupation.
HECKERT: The only place that I can go hunt is public lands here. And this to me is - sounds like the slamming of the door to my right to access public lands.
SIEGLER: Heckert says it's ironic that yesterday's verdict came down on the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the order protecting the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge more than a hundred years ago. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.