Letters from the West

Armed occupation is a call for revolt

Iva Henderson said Saturday that her fellow occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are “kind and loving people.”

Her view is not shared by the federal employees and local officials who reported harassment of their families, armed surveillance or disconnected automobile brake lights. Nor is it shared by Burns Paiute Tribal Chairwoman Charlotte Rodrique, who said the occupiers who labeled Indians as “savages” were desecrating sacred sites.

The Idaho woman, who with her husband Rich lives near Riggins, were staying just for the weekend. She said the occupiers are doing nothing illegal because the refuge belongs to the people and to Harney County, not to the federal government. Furthermore, she said, she is not worried that federal officers will arrest anyone because the feds knows they have no authority. That’s why the feds have stayed away till now, she said.

Despite the facts that the occupiers have carved new roads, taken down fences, set up camp in offices and outbuildings, stolen government trucks, pawed through Paiute Indian artifacts and personnel files and altered historic buildings, Iva Henderson is convinced it’s all is justified.

“Nothing illegal has been done here,” she said.

A reporter’s visit to the occupied Malheur buildings is surprisingly unhassled. That doesn’t mean it’s not a little surreal.

A guard with a sniper rifle is posted around the clock in the old bird-observation tower. The arsenal, which occupiers reference and witnesses say includes military-style rifles, is unseen. Several of the people walking around wear sidearms on their hips.

Reporters were allowed to walk in, but told not to go into any buildings and not to take any pictures of people without their permission. Everyone was busy, the Hendersons said.

“Everybody here has just stuck together and they’ve cleaned up and they’ve fixed, and there was stuff piled all over out here and we’ve organized it,” Iva Henderson said. “We’re not destroying anything, we’re taking care of it.”

Chairwoman Rodrique of the Burns Paiute tribe doesn’t see it that way. The road-building without care to ensure sacred areas are avoided and the rummaging through artifacts are a desecration of the tribe’s values. She said at a Saturday press conference at the refuge that she has asked federal officials to act to protect the tribe’s cultural resources.

Ryan Bundy, who with his brother Ammon leads the armed occupation, was doing his own improvements on a veranda outside the headquarters where he was placing a sign for an evening media event. He was friendly and chatty as he went about what would be considered vandalism by most observers.

He confirmed that Ammon does live in Emmett, not on a ranch but on a 5-acre apple orchard with his wife, Lisa, and his six children, who range from 1 to 13 years old.

“What we’re here to establish, re-establish, is the Constitution,” Bundy said.


Bundy’s statement lies at the heart of what connects the Bundys to the militia members who can be seen patrolling through Burns carrying military-style rifles and who have set up camp at the Narrows, a junction west of the headquarters strategically guarding the main entrance from Burns.

They are not calling for a return to a land management system in place when the nation was founded. They are not talking about turning the public lands now managed by the federal government over to the states as some western politicians advocate.

No, they are calling for is a new form of government based on their own interpretation of the Constitution.

No court, no Congress, no executive, no governor, no county sheriff has the authority to arbitrate the divinely created word of the Founding Fathers, said Joseph O’Shaughnessy, an Arizona Militia leader from Sedona who was at the Narrows camp. Only the people can rise up to enforce what they believe is the strict interpretation of the Constitution.

This view shows that what may have begun as a protest Jan. 2 in support of two now-imprisoned ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, is an effort to overturn the government structure.

A judge’s order sending the Hammonds back to prison for arson of federal land had prompted wide anger in the community and the West.

But even the Hammonds were outliers in a community of ranchers who remain critics of the Bureau of Land Management (which manages grazing on the public range) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which manages grazing on the refuge). The wide majority are working with others to resolve their differences and to find solutions to the clashing values over land management.

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, a rancher who serves in the post that in Oregon is the chairman of the county commissioners, has become the community’s face of resistance to the Bundys.

He said they pick and choose from the Constitution, instead of accepting it as whole. Grasty holds them responsible for the many acts of intimidation against people in the community including those against federal employees, the tribe and himself. He said he had his brake lights disconnected.


Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Steve Ellis came to Burns Saturday for a meeting with his employees, who have been working from home since the occupation began Jan. 2. He had been calling employees individually to provide support and hear how the protests and occupation are affecting their lives and work.

The lack of broader support for the Bundys’ management vision was made clear late Saturday. Just one rancher, Adrian Sewell from Silver City, N.M., accepted their proposal to tear up his grazing permit and in exchange they would come and defend him like they have the Hammonds.

Kierán Suckling, of Tucson, Ariz., the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, is only one of the activists on the environmental side who have come to Burns to counter the Bundys’ message. His group, which primarily sues to force listings of endangered species, has also had a strong anti-grazing message.

But his group has picked up wider support simply by defending the practice of public lands being managed by federal agencies for everyone — hunters, bird watchers, hikers, bikers, campers and others. He has aggressively challenged the Bundys, including their Saturday ceremony.

“New Mexico rancher Adrian Sewell will not be thanked for bringing to New Mexico communities the same emotional, physical, economic, cultural and environmental terror that Harney County, Oregon residents continue to suffer during the Malheur refuge occupation,” said one of Suckling’s colleagues, Michael Robinson.

Suckling was touting a web page, http://www.gohomemalheur.org/, established by two Oregon brothers, where people can donate based on how many days the siege lasts. As of Monday, it had raised more than $75,000 in support of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker