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A group of Utahns traveled to eastern Oregon on Thursday in an effort to diffuse tension between law enforcement and about 20 followers of Ammon Bundy at a federal wildlife reserve in the remote southeastern part of the state.
Eight people, led by Utahns Steve Maxfield and Todd MacFarlane an attorney representing protester and northern Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum say they will try to de-escalate the occupation, which enters its sixth day Friday.
Maxfield and MacFarlane also are acquainted with Bundy through a loosely knit group of ranchers seeking to change federal land management policies.
Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who, along with armed supporters, forced a standoff with federal authorities in 2014. The BLM said his ranch owed more than $1 million in late land-use fees and fines.
Maxfield told The Salt Lake Tribune that he feared statements attributed to Bundy and Finicum have put them in danger. Finicum has been quoted in national news media as saying he would rather die than go to jail.
MacFarlane, who practices law in Kanosh, said he was contacted by the Finicum family.
"His family was concerned about him and the way he's being portrayed."
Some news reports make the ranchers look like a "bunch of crazies," MacFarlane said, rather than people who have legitimate complaints about federal land management.
"It's a roll of the dice," MacFarlane said Thursday. "But we want to go up there and be a voice of reason and bring this to a satisfactory conclusion."
Among the challenges, MacFarlane said, is that the ranchers are not getting their message across to the crowd of reporters and cameras gathered at the federal facility 30 miles south of Burns in sparsely populated Harney County.
Bundy and Finicum are in "over their heads" when dealing with the media. "We're concerned they've got a tiger by the tail," MacFarlane said. "We are going to see if we can help Bundy better articulate where they are coming from."
Finicum said in a prepared statement Thursday the group always intended to hold a peaceful protest and compared it to Occupy Wall Street.
"We want to clarify that we share any and all concerns about safety for everyone involved, including ourselves, our families, the public and law enforcement officers," the statement read in part. "Our concern about safety is one of the reasons why we chose this remote location. The only reason there are any arms or security here is because we are concerned about our own safety. It is unfortunate that we need to rely on our Second Amendment rights to exercise our First Amendment rights.
MacFarlane said he hopes the ranchers will end the protest if given a sign that the federal government is listening to them and recognizes the ranchers have legitimate concerns.
"If you look at what happened to the Hammonds, it's extremely disconcerting," MacFarlane said. "That's just one example. Something has to be done. Their grievances have to be addressed."
Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, turned themselves in earlier this week to serve prison terms after being convicted of arson on federal land.
Steven Hammond set a fire that burned 139 acres of land managed by the BLM in 2001 so he could cover up an illegal deer hunt. In 2006, the Hammonds started another fire that burned an additional acre of federal land. The Hammonds have said they do not support the efforts of Bundy's militia.
The seizure of the refuge caught Finicum's family by surprise, said his brother, Guy Finicum, who is traveling with the Utah group. Like his brother, Guy Finicum is a rancher in Arizona, not far from Kanab, Utah.
"My mother called me. I was in shock," he said. "I understand his principles, but he's not a violent man."
Both Guy and LaVoy Finicum have jobs on the side because their small ranches don't produce enough income.
"We all have second jobs to support our ranching. We're hemmed in on all sizes by public lands," Guy Finicum said. "LaVoy went up there to support people he thought were being treated unjustly."
Also in the Utah group is Janalee Tobias, a gun-rights and community activist from South Jordan.
"I don't think politicians are the answer. It's up to citizens to work things out," she said. "I really don't know what we can do [in Oregon], but we have to try something."
Bundy and the militia don't seem to have much support among Harney County locals; Sheriff David Ward has advised them to leave.