What happens when you gear up for a standoff with the government and the other side never shows?
The group of gun-toting extremists who seized a wildlife preserve in southeast Oregon have learned that life as an occupying force can be cold, lonely and slow. Since Jan. 2, they have been holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Harney County to protest federal land policy and prison sentences meted out to local ranchers convicted of arson. The state is sick of the spectacle. The locals want them gone. But the federal government, recalling disastrous clashes with right-wing extremists at Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 1990s, has opted to sit back and wait them out. Meanwhile, the militia was left to camp out on the snowy tundra, waiting for a confrontation that may never come.
Daniel Cronin has been on hand at the wildlife refuge to witness this strange scene. A photographer from Portland, Ore., Cronin was immediately intrigued by the prospect of a skirmish between heavily armed extremists and federal authorities in a political climate where gun rights and the role of law enforcement are so polarizing. But he thought the feds would have rousted the occupiers by the time he could make the five-and-a-half hour drive from Portland. "I fully expected law enforcement or the Feds to have taken control of the situation and arrested" them, Cronin says. "Surprisingly, it was still going on."
As a result, Cronin has gotten to know some of the occupiers, many of whom hail from states other than Oregon, such as Nevada, Arizona and Idaho. "You could just walk up to the blockade they set up on the road and talk with the people manning it," Cronin says. "A lot of them were fairly affable, and wanted to express to you just why they were doing what they were doing and get their points of view across."
The occupiers have been holding daily 11 a.m. press conferences, which is where Cronin met Dwayne Ehmer, a smiling man with a leather jacket and American flag who lets onlookers pet his horse, Hellboy. After one press conference, the group invited media members to visit a shop on the grounds of the refuge they had cleaned up. They wanted to convey "that they were being 'good stewards,'" Cronin says. The photographer also witnessed a confrontation between the militiamen and Dave Renwald, a birder from Stevenson, Wash., who told the group that he visits Malheur every year and persuaded them to let him into the sanctuary.
While the group's grievances with government are widely shared in this patch of the West, their tactics have alienated the community. At a public forum in Burns, Ore., Cronin listened as locals vented. "It was very interesting to see how the actual citizens of Harney County felt about all these outsiders coming into their community," Cronin says. "Even if they agree with the issues they are trying to raise about land use and ranching, they overwhelmingly want the militants to go home and leave the refuge."
Daniel Cronin is a photographer based in Portland, Ore.
Alex Altman is a Washington correspondent for TIME, covering politics for the magazine and TIME.com.