Supporters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers are in conflict with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies over an impromptu memorial site for Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, the Arizona rancher killed by law enforcement during the occupation.
Rocks, flags, balloons, photos and flowers are in place at the remote site along U.S. Route 395 north of Burns, where the spokesman for the armed occupation died in a confrontation with Oregon State Police troopers.
The Forest Service says the memorial, which sits on Malheur National Forest land, is illegal.
“While the placement of a monument or memorial on public land may help some individuals through difficult times, these memorials are generally of significance to only those most closely tied to a specific person or event,” said Mike Stearly, public affairs officer with the Malheur National Forest. “Others may feel that memorials intrude on their experience of the forest.”
Two men have been guarding the memorial for nearly three weeks, in response to several instances when the memorial was altered or disappeared completely in the middle of the night. William Fisher, of Salmon, Idaho, and Jamey Landin, of Burns, say these three weeks are the longest the site has been untouched.
“They know we’re there,” said Fisher, referring to anyone who might want want to alter the site. “We’re doing something here.”
After reaching the 14-day stay limit allowed in the nearby designated campground, the two moved across the road and founded a dispersed campsite. There, they can stay for an additional 30 days.
Both Fisher and Landin say they are unarmed, and they say they intend to remain peaceful. By law, they are not allowed to carry guns because both men are convicted felons.
The Forest Service said the memorial items are prohibited and need to go, but the agency has not specified a timeline for when it could be removed by the agency.
“The Forest Service does not want to have any conflict or confrontations,” said Stearly. “Law enforcement is in contact with those folks, and communications are in place.”
In late May, four men were cited for allegedly attempting to install a permanent cross in concrete at the site. The Harney County Sheriff’s Office charged the men with third degree criminal mischief, a violation that could carry a $5,000 fine.
Larry Jay, one of the four who was cited, said he and the other defendants in the case plan to plead not guilty to the offense.
Stearly suggested Finicum’s supporters pursue the Forest Service’s “Plant-A-Tree” option, which allows donors to plant seedlings in honor of a loved one.
Fisher scoffed at that option. Those trees wouldn’t be planted where Finicum was shot, and he dislikes that the seedlings would be planted via a federal government program.
The men said they won’t leave until a permanent memorial is in place at the site. They said others will take their place when their stay limits are up.
“We are prepared to do this for as long as we need to,” said Fisher. “We have wall tents with wood stoves if we need them. We have snow machines. We have whatever it takes.”
Fisher and Landin are both currently unemployed. Before he began camping with Fisher, Landin worked as a gas attendant in Burns. They are now supported by food and monetary donations from Finicum supporters and friends.
“You’ve got angels,” said Fisher. “If you’re supposed to be somewhere, then the universe will make sure you’re provided for.”
Fisher maintains an active Facebook page and occasionally solicits donations through social media.
The recent activity at the memorial has some Harney County residents worried that the tension around the site could lead to further conflict with land agencies or even another occupation.
Ongoing coverage of the federal case against the people involved in the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and how life has changed in Harney County, Oregon.
“There’s no need for this whole thing,” said Burns resident Helen Patton, a retired school principal. “If they want to honor [Finicum], why don’t they do it where he’s buried?”
She said the memorial supporters don’t seem to have a grasp of the laws they’re breaking.
“They’re just prolonging this whole thing,” said Patton. “It’s a strange situation, and it just needs to go away. We just need to get back to normal.”
On Sunday, Finicum supporters from as far away as Utah and Wyoming attended a Father’s Day ceremony at the site. Finicum’s wife, Jeanette, attended and emphasized her hope that supporters would continue her husband’s mission.
Fisher said meeting Jeanette Finicum in person strengthened his resolve to remain at the site and stand up to federal agencies.
“They want to fight us just over a small little memorial,” he said. “Fine, we’re here. You might have killed the messenger, but you haven’t killed the message.”