Oregon Occupation Sheds Light On Local Frustrations, But Divides Residents
A small group of men armed with rifles and pistols continues to occupy a federal wildlife refuge in remote southeast Oregon. In the nearby town of Burns, opinion over the situation is divided: Some people have welcomed the occupation and the attention it has brought to local frustration over the management of federal lands, while others reject the militants as outsiders.
Right at the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there's a small RV park and store called the Narrows, which is run by Ron Gainer and his wife, Linda. On Saturday, when Ammon Bundy's occupation started, a few of the men stopped by the store to buy ammunition and food. And Gainer packed up some leftovers for the occupiers.
"Chili and soup, I think. And some rolls," he recalls. "They'll probably enjoy it, and that's what we do here."
Gainer says he thinks the federal government is too involved in local affairs.
"I agree with a lot of this," he says. "I don't know why the federal government has to be here in the numbers that they are."
Like many people in the area, Gainer is angry that Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers convicted of arson, received two different sentences for their crime. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that their original sentence was too short because it violated a five-year mandatory minimum for arson on federal land. To Gainer, that made the government seem vindictive.
"They did their time, and now they're back, and all of a sudden that wasn't good enough, so the government went around for Round 2, to see if they can't get more time," he says.
Harney County is one of the largest in Oregon, but fewer than 8,000 people live scattered across it. The largest community, Burns, is a town of one-story wooden houses a half-hour north of the wildlife refuge.
Larry Northey, a former millworker and welder, is out in the snow working on his truck engine.
"I just don't want to see no bloodshed," he says.
He's worried police officers could get hurt.
"A lot of these officers here I know, I'm good friends with. I want them to come back safe," Northey says.
A few blocks away, Debbie Pfeiffer is walking her dog.
"I don't like what's going on at the refuge," she says. "It's a little unsettling to have these outsiders come in and co-opt the community and, you know, tell us what we should think."
Pfeiffer works part time for the local library. She has spent time at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of the occupied buildings is a museum she likes to visit.
"I am really hoping, crossing my fingers, hoping that none of that is getting destroyed," she says.
All of the schools in Harney County have been shut down for the week. Talia Ward's children are at home. She says it's hard to explain to them the very adult situation going on. At first she was fearful.
"I heard 'militia,' and I think like a lot of other people in that town, I was terrified because I didn't know anything about it," Ward says.
But she says her views have evolved as she has learned more.
"I sat and listened. I marched in the rally for the Hammonds. I support them with all my heart. And I want something done," she says.
Ward has lived in Burns her whole life. She says the town used to have a railroad and one of the largest sawmills in Oregon. That mill closed in the 1980s, and Ward blames the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management.
"It's sad to be a citizen here and know that so many amenities have been shut down in Harney County, to sit and watch your friends move away, because they don't have jobs here, unless you go to work for the BLM," she says.
Ward says she doesn't think the armed occupation is right. But for the first time she feels like someone is standing up for her town.
Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.