The three-hour meeting took place just outside Crane, Oregon, at a hot springs resort.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the leaders of the occupation, said they wanted to make Harney County an example of a place free from the federal government.
“The opportunity is now, and the place is Harney County,and you are the people,” said Ammon Bundy. “They’ll never be an opportunity like this again.”
The start of the meeting was not unlike a pitch for a timeshare.
The lights dimmed and on came a short film with dramatic music.
But rather than white sandy beaches, the projected images depicted dramatic landscapes of the American West.
In the nearly three hours that followed, the Bundys and a few of their core supporters led a room of largely Harney County ranchers through a presentation. At times it took on the tone of a civics lesson — one that included readings from pocket Constitutions distributed beforehand. At other times, speakers seemed to invoke the fiery passions of a preacher delivering a sermon from the pulpit.
Then came the hard sell.
The militants occupying the Refuge asked Harney County ranchers to tear up their leases with the Bureau of Land Management and stop paying the federal government to graze cattle on public land.
“I’ve done it. Cliven Bundy’s done it,” said LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher and the militants’ defacto spokesman. “Now is the day. Now is the time. Are you going to wait for tomorrow? For next week? Next month? Next year? When? When will you stand up if not now?”
Roughly 75 percent of Harney County is federal land. And just more than 10 percent of people who work in the county are employed by the federal government.
Finicum invited the ranchers to cancel their leases with the BLM at a ceremony before the media at the refuge on Saturday. He said two ranchers, one from New Mexico and another from Harney County, are scheduled to void their contracts publicly.
“I promise, that if you stand, others will stand with you,” Finicum said. “If you stand, God will stand with you. But God cannot stand with you if you do not stand.”
The leaders of the armed occupation described how 25 years ago Cliven Bundy stopped communicating with the BLM.
Ryan Bundy went on to emphasize his view that breaking away from the federal government means ranchers wouldn’t have to follow federal laws, like the Endangered Species Act.
“You know how many endangered species we’re dealing with on our ranch right now?” Bundy asked. “Zero, because it doesn’t matter anymore.”
LaVoy and the Bundys also acknowledged their proposition is risky. They said any rancher who joined them would get protection from the armed militants led by Payne.
“We are here temporarily to defend you,” Ammon Bundy said. “Eventually, you’ve got to get unified enough to started defending yourselves.”
As the militants announced the meeting was ending, local resident Scott Franklin, stood up and entered a tense exchange with the Bundys.
“I’m a fourth generation rancher,” he said. “I’m going to ask you a question. Are we a nation of laws?”
“No,” said Ryan Bundy.
“We’re not?” Franklin replied. “So, we just break laws all the time, and that’s OK?”
“We are a nation of laws, and this law is the one being broken,” Ryan Bundy said, tapping his pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. “And this law is the supreme law of the land.”
“In the end, who decides what the Constitution says? The Supreme Court,” Franklin said.
That comment was met with a chorus of “Nos” from some audience members.
“I’m saying, I’m not going to fight an uphill battle that’s not going to be won,” Franklin said. “You’re asking us to give up everything for this rebel cause.”
Some ranchers were more receptive to the Bundys’ message. They spoke of their frustration with the environmental regulations on BLM land, and their belief that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge wants to grow by acquiring ranches.
Buck Taylor runs cattle on about 200,000 acres of land, including private land, BLM allotments and land in the refuge.
After listening to the presentation, Taylor said he was considering the Bundys’ proposition, but thought there should be more meetings to discuss it.
“I am drinking the Kool Aid,” he said. “I haven’t swallowed it yet. I am open to the idea.”
Duane Schrock, who ranches on private land near Crane, Oregon, also walked away with a positive impression.
“It was good; very informational,” he said. “People need to be educated. If they’re not educated, they’re not going to know what’s going on.”
Schrock is a member of the Harney County Committee of Safety, a group that supports the militants’ proposals. Bundy and Payne helped establish the committee before the occupation began Jan. 2.
After the meeting, Franklin, the rancher who’d spoken against the proposition, said he was ready for the Bundys to go. He said he has relatives who work for the BLM, and he was struggling to keep his family calm.
“I know that the refuge is never going to be in private hands,” he said. “Are they going to Yosemite? Are they going to Yellowstone? Where else are they going to do this?”