The stand off at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon is now 14 days old, and the media narrative has us believing that little has changed. We’re told armed men still occupy the refuge headquarters, they are removing fences, rifling through refuge files, causing fear and distress and division in the county, and they are responsible for costing taxpayers around $65,000.00 to $70,000.00 a day. We’re told they are threatening, scary men who should be labeled domestic terrorists, and we should all be outraged that they haven’t been routed from the refuge and tossed in jail.
I have been following this situation from the beginning, and have already written about some of my concerns about the takeover of the refuge headquarters, and I will admit I have concerns about some of the people involved. I have wondered about the sincerity of their stated intentions, and their decision to make their stand here in Oregon. But, I can’t deny that I understand the anger over land use issues. I grew up in logging country, my father lost his job when the local mill shut down and I saw the effect on the community as restrictions on land use increased, partially due to the struggle to protect spotted owls. I understand the anger over the Hammonds’ case. And , I understand the anger of Native American tribes over the loss of their land rights, rights often taken deceptively.
I also understand the desire to protect lands and wildlife. I grew up camping and backpacking, my love for wilderness began before I can remember. I spent a summer interning for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at another Oregon preserve, and have spent my life working in the outdoor industry. I’ve been to the Malheur Refuge, and I don’t want to see it destroyed or closed. I understand why this is a heated and polarizing issue, I find myself divided in my opinions and thoughts about it often. But, rather than focusing on the land use issues and seeking solutions, the media is feeding division with their narrative of what is happening in Harney County.
This has bothered me from the beginning of the coverage of this story, and I have been trying to get some local perspectives, to get a feel for what is really going on. I have had sporadic contact with somebody involved in the mess, and yesterday I had the privilege to speak with him on the phone. BJ Soper, a member of the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, was involved in the planning and organizing of the initial peaceful protest that took place on January 2, 2016 in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond. (You can read what I’ve written about their case here for some background on them.) Like the vast majority of people involved, he did not know that the planned protest rally would end with the armed occupation of the refuge. Mr. Soper has chosen to remain in the area, saying he will stay until the stand off is over. He has impressed me with his calm approach, and his willingness to remain at the forefront of this situation, interacting with the men at the refuge, the media, community members, and law enforcement. Today, Mr. Soper gave me a new perspective on the situation.
While we have been arguing about the occupation, and the feds have been expensively standing by, waiting the occupiers out, and policy makers and pundits have spouted off about just what actions should be taken, the surrounding community has been working hard, working together for the most part, to find solutions. Mr. Soper had a positive ring to his voice as he mentioned the cooperation and communication happening in the county. He mentioned comments from local residents of Burns about how they couldn’t remember the last time the community had come together to find solutions instead of simply leaving the decision making up to the powers that be. Townhall meetings used to involve maybe 30 people, and the meetings taking place since the stand off began have involved hundreds.
I asked Mr. Soper specifically how he felt about the perception in the media that there is very little local support for the men occupying the refuge. He said that he believes that is being misconstrued, that there is growing support. He pointed out that most people don’t necessarily agree with the occupation, but they support the messages of land use issues and the Hammonds’ case that Ammon Bundy and his crew have brought national attention to. They appreciate that this conversation is now started in a way that can’t easily be ignored, or stopped. Mr. Soper also said that there are donations coming in (I’m sure he meant donations more useful than these) and there may even be companies looking to sponsor the group at the refuge.
We spoke about the reports of intimidation and increased crime Sheriff Ward spoke about eleven days into the stand off, alluding to increased reports occurring even before the stand off began, as if to say all those ‘militia’ folk were stirring up trouble before this began. Mr. Soper had previously made reference to his thoughts on these reports on facebook, suggesting that much of the intimidation might just be coming from the feds. He points out that there is an incredible law enforcement presence in the community, and it would not make any sense for any of the militia type people to be causing trouble around town. After all, they are there to help the community, and wish to gain the support of the local people. Not intimidate them. (I also want to point out that many of these groups do not call themselves a militia.)
I asked Mr. Soper about this specifically because on Wednesday, the Fire Chief of Harney County, Chris Briels, resigned and gave a speech at the refuge in which he states that he followed a vehicle from the armory in Burns after there were reports made to the police about people being at the armory. Mr. Briels followed a vehicle from the armory, and when it pulled over he approached the two men in the car and asked them what they were doing at the armory. He states in his speech that they were dishonest with him, he describes their excuses for what they were doing, then goes on to say that he had the license plates run by the dispatch service. The car was an undercover FBI vehicle, according to Mr. Briels. Regardless of what the FBI was up to, what possible reason would they have for attempting to keep their identity secret from the fire chief? If they expect the local leaders to support their actions and presence, why lie?
Mr. Briels is also upset about a recent decree from the local county judge, Steve Grasty:
Grasty also said protesters and their supporters can no longer use community facilities for meetings. Occupiers had planned to meet at the county fairgrounds Friday to explain their intentions and announce an exit plan.
Mr. Briels also states in his speech:
I feel that the people in this county, in this state, in this United States, have the right to free speech, and the right to assemble, and the right to figure out if there’s a problem, and what we can do about it.
BJ Soper is also frustrated about this, and indicates that a good number of residents are as well. He alerted me to this on Wednesday, and pointed out that the Judge has no legal capacity to do this. Mr. Soper has posted, on facebook, an email that he received from the judge that clearly states that the county’s message is for the armed militia to go home. Ironically, Ammon Bundy had announced intentions to participate in a meeting on Friday (today) to discuss exit plans with the community, in a public venue. I’m not sure how closing all public facilities to any community meeting that involves anyone affiliated with the refuge occupation helps to further discussion and progress towards a resolution of this situation. I’m not sure how that helps everyone to just go home. I can agree with what Mr. Soper has to say on facebook about Judge Grasty’s declaration and how to deal with it…
To my friends in Harney county… Right now nothing you can do is more important than speaking out against Judge Grasty stating that the fairgrounds building can not be used for a public meeting. He has no legal capacity to issue any such order. This is a clear indication that there is something to hide and an attempt to silence the voices that are growing with concern. This meeting on Friday at 7pm must go on! Do not let this man bully or threaten any of you.
My suggestion would be that all of you call the fairgrounds and reserve the room in your name. I will pay the $100 fee. Call by the 100’s to reserve the room. Whatever it takes. Let your government know that they do not have the ability to restrict your voice!!
I would happily contribute to that $100.00 reservation fee.
The people of Harney County have met this unexpected challenge with an unexpected response. They have come together to look for solutions to a problem that has gone largely unaddressed and unresolved for decades, as well as the immediate problem of the stand off. They are talking with one another, they are searching for a middle ground, they are cooperating with each other in spite of their different opinions. Isn’t that how community is supposed to work?
Meanwhile, the Federal government has descended upon Harney County in flocks larger than any avian flocks I saw in my visit to the refuge years ago. From all reports I’ve seen, they are just standing by, watching, waiting, while the tax-payer cost of this situation rises. Again, from Mr. Soper in response to the lack of action from the feds:
What really fires me up is all these resources coming into this town for this issue that we the people get to foot the bill for. There hasn’t even been a conversation to discuss how to resolve the issue!! Not even a phone call. ABSOLUTLEY [sic] ridiculous.
How can we pin the cost of this ‘operation’ on Ammon Bundy and his crew? How can we truly estimate the cost of a proper response? I can’t help but question the current figure of the daily cost of this situation when I hear that there might be a surveillance drone on site, there is multiple law enforcement vehicles pulling one civilian car over, there are more law enforcement cars than civilian cars in the streets of Burns, but there is no violent act or tense situation to explain such an enormous federal presence. Is this a reasonable response to the occupation at the refuge? I have a suspicion that this would all cost a whole lot less if the feds had stayed out of the equation altogether and had allowed the local residents to resolve this problem on their own. After all, they seem to be doing so, with or without the notice of the media, and without the help of the FBI and local authorities.
Perhaps we should all be screaming for the expensive law enforcement operation to pack up and go home instead of the group occupying the refuge. After all, the law enforcement officials are the ones wracking up big bills while doing nothing more than standing around, armed and intimidating. Let the community work together, as they are, to find a solution to the situation, and learn from their example. We have to stop relying on this over-reaching and corrupt federal government to solve our problems, because their solutions always come with more restrictions. Like the people of Harney county, we have to work together within our communities instead.