Against the advice of his colleagues and GOP leadership, Oregon State Rep. Dallas Heard visited with militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January
Describing the visit as a “fact-finding” trip, the Roseburg Republican told OPB that he traveled 300 miles from his home to Burns to witness firsthand what was happening at the refuge.
“The media was getting a lot wrong,” Heard said. “And I wanted to see for myself."
Yet, it was Heard who relayed bad information to Harney County officials and the FBI during a Jan. 9 meeting at a critical point in the occupation.
Heard went to Harney County as part of a delegation led by the Coalition of Western States, or COWS, to meet with Ammon Bundy. The freshman state legislator said he isn't part of COWS, which counts some 50 legislators, local officials and grassroots activists among its members. But he said he is sympathetic to the group's long-term goal of transferring federal lands to the states.
Land transfers were one of the subjects that COWS members spoke about during that January meeting, which took place a week into the occupation. OPB has obtained an audio recording of that gathering. While Heard himself doesn't dive into the politics of the occupation, he does make several statements that are not true. "I misspoke," Heard told OPB.
Did Senior GOP Leadership Support Heard's Actions?
Heard was the only elected office holder from Oregon at the meeting, though, the day before, Cliff Bentz, a fellow Republican who represents Harney County, asked him not to visit the refuge. Bentz, like law enforcement in Harney County, feared a visit from elected officials could inflame the situation. At the closed-door meeting with COWS members and county leaders, Heard acknowledged he came despite his colleague’s request.
“I invited [Bentz] here,” Heard said on the recording, “and he said he wouldn’t come.”
With Burns’ lone elected representative opposed to the meeting, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty’s attention focused on Heard’s involvement.
“I’m really curious, representative,” Grasty asked, “you said you had legislative leadership buy into this?”
How OPB Reported This Story
This story is based on reporting on the ground before, during and after the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and post-occupation interviews with participants. It was reported and written by John Sepulvado with reporting contributions from Amanda Peacher, Conrad Wilson, Amelia Templeton, Kristian Foden-Vencil and Kimberley Freda.
Heard said that Rep. Mike McLane, the leader of Oregon House Republicans, was aware of the plans. “He supports what I’m doing,” Heard said in the recording, which was taken by a participant in the room. “One of the reasons he’s not here is because he has his voluntary guard duty stuff. And I wish he was here.”
That weekend, McLane was at the Oregon Air National Guard. However, in an interview with OPB, McLane denied ever endorsing the refuge occupation or Heard’s actions.
“I didn’t support it and I don’t support it,” he said. “Rep. Heard is mistaken.”
In an interview with OPB, Heard acknowledged that information he gave to local officials and the FBI in that January meeting was incorrect.
“I’m sorry I misstated what he said,” Heard said.
The Role Of The Roseburg Shooting
Heard also told the group that he was inspired to go to Harney County by the Umpqua Community College shootings in October 2015.
“Being the guy from the UCC shooting, that’s my area, I drive by it everyday,” Heard said on the recording. “So just to reiterate, the only reason I am here as the lone representative from Oregon in this town, is just about anything that I could have possibly done to help deescalate this situation," he said.
Grasty, Harney County’s top elected official, didn’t seem to buy that explanation. He asked Heard to imagine how he would have responded to a scenario to what was playing out on the refuge.
“Let me put this in context for you,” Grasty said. “So the guy goes into the UCC and he doesn’t shoot anybody. He goes in there, and he’s in the room. He’s got his gun in his holster. And he says, ‘I’m not coming out ‘til you listen to me.’ What would you have done?”
“I would recommend that we don’t do anything until he finally shoots somebody,” Heard answered. “But I’m talking about Mr. Bundy. I don’t think anybody in this room would doubt there’s some truly radical people with an agenda."
“Including Mr. Bundy,” Grasty said, sharply.
“I don’t know,” Heard replied. “I can’t make judgment.”
Heard Frustrated By Sheriff’s Absence
The COWS delegation and Heard all sounded frustrated – and at times annoyed – that Harney County Sheriff David Ward did not attend the Jan. 9 meeting.
Heard in particular seemed upset by Ward’s absence, and suggested it was a sign of disrespect.
The law enforcement officials who attended the meeting – including Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers – urged Heard and the others not to go to the refuge, and not to negotiate on behalf of the militants.
Heard questioned why he should listen to Myers and FBI agent Eric Barnhart if Ward, the local sheriff, couldn’t be bothered enough to meet with the out-of-town visitors.
“It’s somewhat odd to me that you don’t want us to go out there so greatly, but the sheriff isn’t here to tell us,” Heard said.
The law enforcement officers then reiterated their concern that a visit from elected officials would embolden the militants, as well as present a potential safety risk.
Heard then said he had spoken directly to Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin before the meeting and the veteran law enforcement leader had promised him that the Harney County sheriff would attend.
Marion County Sheriff Myers corrected Heard.
“No, Sheriff Hanlin talked to me, and I told him I would be here and he gave you my cell number,” Myers said. “And you never called.”