SEATTLE (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell was to visit the Oregon wildlife refuge at the center of a 41-day armed protest over land use rights earlier this year and meet on Monday with refuge employees and tribal leaders in the area, her office said.
Jewell's visit comes as more than two dozen anti-government protesters face federal charges over the protest in rural eastern Oregon that include conspiring to impede federal officers policing the compound and damage to sacred tribal burial grounds.
"As the community continues to recover from the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I know that deepening the strong partnerships already in place will be important to the healing process," Jewell said in a statement.
At the end of the occupation, the FBI said it found a trench of human feces and a road excavated on or next to a sensitive cultural site containing artifacts.
The agency said it was working with the Burns Paiute Tribe to identify damage to the tribe's artifacts and sacred burial grounds. The status of that investigation and the extent of the damage were unclear.
Jewell said she was traveling to Harney County to meet with refuge employees and the Burns Paiute Tribe. She is due to tour the refuge and hold a press conference at 2:45 p.m. PDT at the Harney County Court Office in Burns, Oregon, her office said.
The occupation, which began on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was sparked by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property in the vicinity of the refuge.
It marked the latest flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West.
The latest indictment, unsealed on March 9, charges protesters with carrying firearms in federal facilities and damaging and stealing government property, in addition to conspiring to impede federal officers policing the refuge.
It also charged two participants with depredation of government property over damage to an archeological site considered sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe through the use of excavation and heavy equipment.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Sara Catania and Dan Grebler)