Liz Appelman has lived in Burns for 60 years, and spent 30 of them working with the Bureau of Land Management.
She’s now retired, but keeps in touch with her former co-workers at the BLM office in Harney County.
“Government employees around here, when they go downtown, they get hammered because their bosses did this or they did that,” Appelman said.
And that was before armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of town Jan. 2. Since then, she said, the backlash against government employees living in the community has only intensified.
“It’s caused a lot of heartache in a lot of people, and a lot of confrontations that didn’t have to be,” Appelman said.
The presence of armed militants at the wildlife refuge isn’t sitting well with some government workers in Harney County. More than 40 percent of the county’s employed residents work for either local or federal government agencies. Some say the militants are creating divides in the tight knit community.
One of Appelman’s former colleagues was threatened and told to “go home,” despite the fact she’s lived in the county for 25 years. “Because she’s a BLM employee. That’s why they told her that,” Appelman said.
To add to their frustrations, Appelman said, current employees aren’t allowed to speak out because it’s against agency policy. The BLM declined to allow current employees who live in Harney County to be interviewed for this story, in part out of concern for their safety.
“Federal employees find this disturbing,” said BLM spokesman Randy Eardley. “There is a very clear threat to federal employees, particularly the BLM.”
Eardley said that while the BLM office and other federal agency buildings remain closed in Burns, employees are doing what work they can remotely. He said employees are also continuing to get paid.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward said there have been attempts to intimidate federal employees, especially those at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who manage the Refuge.
Ward said people from outside the community have idled or driven slowly past the homes of federal workers. In other instances, he said “self-identified militia members” have tried to engage federal employees and their family members in debates.
“Many of these confrontations are taking place as their employees are grocery shopping, running errands with their families and trying to lead their day-to-day lives,” Ward said in a statement this week.
‘We’re a community here’
Despite the threats to some, other former BLM employees said residents’ frustrations at the local level aren’t with workers on the ground, but rather with policies made at the national level.
Skip Renchler, who lives in Hines, Oregon, retired from the BLM several years ago after working as a real estate specialist.
“The local people, generally, maybe not support the federal employees, but they don’t – we’re a community here,” Renchler said. “They don’t take it personally.”
Renchler said he’s never been physically threatened.
“Yeah, I’ve been kind of verbally abused at times, but I think a lot of the local people understand — the non-government people understand — that we’re part of the community too,” he said.
Like many in Harney County, both Renchler and Appelman said they want the militants occupying the Refuge to leave. And like many in this part of the state, both described their own frustrations in dealing with federal bureaucracy.
Federal workers and ranching families
For many people in Harney County, there’s a good chance you’re either a rancher or work for the government. But across many families and friend groups, it’s not one or the other — it’s both.
“How many ranchers’ kids work for the government, work for the BLM? I know quite a few,” said Candy Tiller, who was born in Harney County, where her family raises cattle. Tiller said her daughter works for the BLM in Burns.
“The presence of the Bundy brothers and the other militants at the refuge have stressed relationships,” she said, while seated at her kitchen table in Burns.
“I don’t want to see my neighbors and my families pitted against each other,” she said.
Tiller appreciates that more people are talking about public land issues in eastern Oregon. But with tears in her eyes, she said what doesn’t sit well with her is how the militants have brought the attention.
“I don’t like my family members and my friends fearing for their lives,” she said. “I don’t like the thought that my daughter could wake up one night and possibly have somebody outside trying to set fire to her house, or slash her tires, or follow her home and harass her and my grandchildren.”
“That pisses me off,” she said. “That makes me want to go down there and tell them to get the hell out.”
For many, it seems those frustrations and fears are something that will remain as long as the militants stay. And even if or when they leave, it’s clear they’ve started a conversation that’s far from over.