Oregon town torn apart by protest at wildlife refuge

The courthouse is still blocked by concrete ballasts. Tires have been slashed. Family members have argued and refused to speak again; friendships have been severed. Fights have broken out in church.

The occupation at a wildlife refuge near here by a band of outsiders — 11 of whom have been arrested, one killed, and four still in the compound — has turned this patch of small-town America into a community at war with itself. Rather than uniting the hamlet of Burns around a common cause, the rebellion at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government protesters has dissolved neighborly ties and exposed divisions among residents, some of whom support federal regulation of public land and others who bristle at Washington’s sway.

The tumultuous events of the occupation — still not over after 27 days — have left scars and divisions that residents said would not soon heal, even after the drama ends and the world’s attention moves on. Nearly everyone here wonders when — or whether — the community will be able to move on.

“This county is so tore up, it will never be the same — ever,” said Jeff Dixson, 68, a wildlife photographer and former truck driver who said he supported many of the goals of the occupiers in his midst, making him unpopular with many neighbors. “There’s a lot of people that have told me they ain’t never going to talk to me again.”

For nearly a month, the tiny community of Burns — the seat of sprawling Harney County, which has a population of a little more than 7,000 — has played host to a protest movement it never requested: a band of armed cowboys from other states, including Idaho, who rode through town on Jan. 2 and took over the government-run wildlife sanctuary about 30 miles away, saying they wanted to liberate it from the government’s yoke. Burns has a population of about 2,000.

The protesters, led by the brothers Ammon, of Emmett, and Ryan Bundy — who were arrested Tuesday and made a court appearance Friday afternoon — turned the nature preserve and research center into an armed bunker, one that drew sympathizers with impressive weaponry from around the country. One of them, LaVoy Finicum, was shot dead Tuesday in the same encounter with the police that led to the surrender of the Bundys and others.

The last four holdouts at Malheur, three men and a woman, are negotiating with the FBI, but at least one of them has said he would rather die than give up.

The arguments that broke out in Harney County early on, shortly after the seizure of the Malheur refuge, feel almost quaint now, people said: Were the ideology and tactics of the occupiers valid? Many people supported the goals of the protesters — the return of federal lands to local or private control and the release from prison of two local ranchers convicted of arson for a fire that spread to public land — but disagreed with their illegal armed showdown.

As things dragged on, the questions and fears got darker — about whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were doing the right thing and whether the sympathizers arriving in town, guns on their hips, should be seen as specters of intimidation or of comfort.

After this week’s events, the county has been thrown into the kind of debate that was, until now, a headline from somewhere else like Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore: police violence. The FBI released the video Thursday showing Oregon State Police troopers shooting Finicum, 54, after he tried to drive around a roadblock and reached for his gun. The state police hoped the release of the video would quell speculation and accusations that Finicum was gunned down with his hands up. But not everyone was satisfied, and many citizens who watched the video do not accept the FBI’s account of what happened.

Gov. Kate Brown said in an interview this week that once the Malheur saga came to an end, there would be lots of cleanup and mending to do. In the legislative session scheduled to begin next week, she said, she will ask that Harney County be reimbursed for the costs it has incurred, with the hope that, in turn, the federal government will reimburse the state.

In Harney, “the very fabric of this community is being ripped apart,” Brown said.

“It is absolutely another dividing line with one side saying it was coldblooded murder and the other side is saying it was completely justified,” said Linsay Tyler, 33, a rancher who was born and raised in the county. She said Finicum’s death — Tyler thinks it was unjustified but stopped short of calling it murder — has been like gasoline on a fire. “It was a community divided throughout the whole occupation, but now it’s even more divided ...,” she said.

Protesters loosely affiliated with the occupation have ridden into Burns, taking up rooms at the local motels — the Silver Spur, the Horseshoe — while wearing battle fatigues, carrying AR-15 rifles and claiming to be there as peacekeepers.

Linda Gainer, 63, runs a restaurant about 6 miles from the refuge. She is one of many people who say the occupation has torn her community apart. Gainer has fed nearly everyone involved with the standoff: occupiers, FBI agents, journalists, visiting environmentalists and others, but has received criticism for permitting the occupiers to buy food from her cafe.

“People say that we’re unpatriotic, we’re terrorists,” she said. “You shouldn’t go around and say nasty things about people just because you don’t agree on something.”

Some residents are simply leaving, which does not bode well for a place that has long struggled with an eroding economy and population. For instance, the 17 employees of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were relocated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which received “nonspecific” threats about taking them hostage, said Jason Holm, a spokesman for the agency, which runs the refuge.

One Malheur employee, speaking anonymously to protect his safety, said he was living apart from his wife and young children. His family has lived in the area for decades, he said, but is considering moving on for good. “It makes us very angry,” he said.

The Harney County sheriff, Dave Ward, who has been a vocal opponent of the occupation, said the tires of his wife’s vehicle were slashed, prompting her to leave town. The authorities are investigating the matter; no arrests have been made.

Four of the area’s top public officials have resigned since the occupation: the county school superintendent, the principals of the county middle and high schools, and the head of the Fire Department. The fire chief, Chris Briels, is a supporter of the occupation, and resigned when other officials refused to allow the Bundy group to a host a meeting in town. The educators cited nonoccupational reasons for leaving, saying they wanted to spend more time with grandchildren or seek a position in a larger school.

Cattle ranchers, environmentalists, birders, Native Americans and federal officials have long tussled over the use of public land in Harney County, just as people have in other communities across the West for centuries. But in recent years, Harney County residents have come together to create a land use plan for the refuge’s nearly 188,000 acres, winning praise from the Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, who called the plan a model.

The Malheur occupation has broken down that spirit of cooperation, said Vanessa Leathers-King, 33, whose great-great grandfather was the first in her family to ranch in the county. She divided the community into three groups: Bundy allies, federal government allies, and a lot of people who identify a bit with both — like her.

“I believe there is a lot of government overreach that is affecting this way of life, affecting small towns,” Leathers-King said. “The part I don’t agree with is taking illegal action to change it.”

Even so, she feels her neighbors have labeled her an occupation supporter, and she pulled her son out of school after students bullied him for being a “Bundy-lover.” He is now taking classes online.

“That seems to be one of the favorite terms in town right now,” Leathers-King said. “I have not been to church the past three Sundays. I’m worried about how I'll be received there.”

On Thursday evening, with just four people left at the refuge, the remote road between Burns and the refuge looked like a military operation in its final hour, with dark trucks and SUVs rolling out as the sun set over vast areas of sagebrush.

Authorities maintained a roadblock a few miles from the refuge. At the barrier, a woman stood in the road, crying, alone.

Barbara Berg, 51, said she was an occupation sympathizer from Nevada who had been camping for the last few days on a stretch of road between the occupiers and an FBI checkpoint, an area that had become a sort of neutral zone in recent days.

She had taken it upon herself to drive to the refuge, sit around a campfire with the occupiers and try to convince the last holdouts to give up, she said. She had successfully convinced two men to turn themselves in, and was now exhausted.

“This was not worth fighting – giving your life for,” she said she told them. “It’s not over,” she continued, explaining that she still supported the Bundy’s call for less federal control. “There is work to do, but this is not the way to get it done.”

Leaders remain in jail

Ammon Bundy and several other jailed leaders appeared Friday in federal court in Portland, where a judge denied their release. U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman said Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and Ryan Payne pose a danger to the community and she is concerned they would not follow orders to return to Oregon for criminal proceedings.

Beckerman said she would release them only if the standoff ends. Four holdouts continued to occupy the refuge in the snowy high country near Burns, and they posted a YouTube video Friday demanding pardons for everyone involved in the occupation.

Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Lissa Casey, said her client is not aligned with those remaining at the refuge and wants to go back to his family in Emmett. “He is done in Harney County; his message has been sent,” she said.