Armed militants continue to occupy the the Malheur National Refuge, eleven days after first taking over the refuge headquarters. The occupation remains a big issue for the community of Burns. Monday night about 300 local residents gathered for a community meeting at Burns High School. OPB’s Amanda Peacher was there and spoke with Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross on the latest news from Burns. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Geoff Norcross: Amanda, first, can you bring us up to speed on what’s happening with the refuge occupation?
Amanda Peacher: Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers are still there. Yesterday, they did remove a fence that was separating private land from some of the refuge lands, now allowing cattle to go back and forth between those lands. We understand that they are looking for what they say are the original titles of the refuge sale, so those who sold their lands to the federal government back in the 1930s and 40s, they want to turn those lands back over to private individuals.
The Pacific Patriots Network militants are also still in Burns. Just as a reminder, that’s the other armed group that’s in town. They agree with many of the broader goals of the refuge occupiers, but they’re pushing for a peaceful resolution to the occupation. They also want the Bundy clan to leave.
There still has not been any specific law enforcement action at the refuge and we don’t have any indication as to what the FBI’s plans are at this point.
GN: Okay, so what did you hear at the community meeting Monday?
AP: The overwhelming message from Harney County residents was that they wanted the occupiers to leave, even though some people support the idea of turning federal lands over to local control. I think there’s still quite a lot of fear and anxiety in the community.
One brave, young 15-year-old girl stood up and, in tears, she said she felt scared and that she shouldn’t have to feel that way in her own community.
There’s a lot of talk about the community coming together, united. They know that they’re in the media spotlight and it’s just very unusual for this small community of Burns.
One thing that came up frequently is people have good relationships with BLM workers here who are on the ground. Resident Rob Frank spoke on that point.
“The federal government is made up of individuals, but the individuals here in Harney County are our community,” Frank said. “They’re our friends and family. And I think, in Harney County, we have very strong working relationships between private citizens, ranchers, etc. and those federal agencies.”
That’s something that you hear a lot in this community. While people may have problems with broader BLM policies at the national level, they really respect the local people who work here on the ground.
GN: Elected officials also spoke at the meeting. What was their message?
AP: State Rep. Cliff Bentz was there as well as Judge Steve Grasty. They all delivered the message that they want the occupiers to leave and now. Mayor Craig LaFollette gave a strong message – we haven’t heard as much from him yet – he wants the occupiers out.
“It’s been reported that if our community does not want members of the militia here that they would honor our requests and depart,” LaFollette said. “Our community does not want you here any longer. Please, honor our community’s wishes and depart immediately.”
Sheriff Dave Ward also reiterated that message. He asked the Bundy occupiers to go home as well.
“I don’t want to stand up here and talk about an investigation that’s going on,” Ward said. “I don’t want to put details out there. But the fact is there is an hourglass and it’s running and time’s going to run out. So we need to work through this sooner than later. Please, go home.”
Many of the messages, both from the officials and from the community members seemed directly geared toward Ammon Bundy and the occupiers, asking them to leave. All of the officials sounded and looked pretty exhausted. I think the whole community here is feeling the fatigue of this ongoing situation.
GN: What can we expect today?
AP: The refuge occupiers continue to hold their daily press briefings. To go in and out of the refuge headquarters, there’s no one preventing them from doing that. Some supplies are still being brought in and although Judge Grasty, Monday night, pleaded with community members – even if they agree with the mission of the occupiers – not to bring in any additional supplies.
The Pacific Patriots Network self-described militiamen are still in town, patrolling the streets and saying they want a peaceful resolution. And there’s a strong FBI presence here, although we have no indication that law enforcement has plans to take action.
So I think (we can expect) more of the same. We might know more about the occupiers’ plans if we hear from them later today.