Editor’s note: The raw audio of the confrontation between occupiers and protesters contains sensitive material.
Candy Henderson is in the middle of treatment for breast cancer. She said she’s still sore from a recent surgery that removed part of her breast and lymph nodes. In a few weeks, she will start radiation treatment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
But in the meantime, Henderson, who describes herself as an avid hiker, drove 400 miles from her home in Walla Walla, Washington, to join a small counter-protest at the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“I hike in the public lands, and I camp, and I fish, and I don’t want to lose that,” she said. “If they’re still here, holding the headquarters hostage, I’m going to come back after my treatment and stay here until they’re gone. When they leave, I will leave.”
While the numbers of counter protesters at the refuge have been been relatively small so far, more than 100 people rallied in Bend on Friday to speak out in support of federally managed public lands. Similar protests are planned in Portland, Bend and Eugene later this week.
Henderson is camping on the snow in a small green tent at an RV park at the edge of the Malheur. She has a zero-degree sleeping bag, a small heater and some food.
Henderson is among a half dozen hikers, birders and environmentalists who have traveled to the refuge to counter the message of Ammon Bundy and the men occupying it, who say the government has no right to own the refuge or other federally managed lands.
On Saturday, Kierán Suckling, the executive director and founder of the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, stood in the parking lot of the Refuge where the armed occupiers hold their daily press conferences.
“We’re here as the public to speak up for our lands and say this is public land, Bundy and your militia, go home,” Suckling said, holding a sign that read “Stop Bundy Land Grab.”
“Bundy, the militias say they want to take this and give it back to the people. Well guess what? The people already own it,” he said. “It’s our public land.”
Suckling said what the Bundys are trying to do is part of a larger movement around the American West to turn millions of acres of public lands over to mining companies, developers, loggers and other corporations.
Things got heated when Suckling tried to deliver a statement to assembled media.
Pete Santilli, host of a show on YouTube and a strong advocate for the militants occupying the refuge, and other supporters of the occupiers, kept interrupting Suckling.
“We allowed you to speak,” Suckling shouted to Santilli and others. “I will ask you to allow me my free speech here.”
Santilli responded minutes later by getting a megaphone out of the back of his SUV. Walking back to face Suckling, Santilli shouted into the megaphone,“He wants the government to handle the public land, not the people of Harney County. That’s what he wants. That’s what he’s suggesting.”
The handful of environmental protesters at the refuge Saturday said they were nervous and concerned about their safety.
Cody Martz, an independent birder, came to Harney County from Washington state. He said he wanted Bundy’s group to know about what he called the “economic importance of birders.”
“It’s intimidating to come out here by yourself to something like this, an armed occupied situation, but I got through that,” Martz said. “I had enough courage to come here and do this because it’s that important to me. It’s important to me to exercise my freedom of speech.”
Counter protesters to Bundy occupation say they’re scared, but here to “defend our public lands.” #Oregonstandoff— Conrad Wilson (@conradjwilson) January 16, 2016
Protesters also said they wanted the armed occupiers to see that there are people on the other side of the issue and support the federal management of public lands.
“I’m the counter demonstration,” said Jay Godfrey, a long-distance hiker from Oklahoma. “Our public lands are not going to be taken away at the barrel of a gun.”