Repercussions of the armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Preserve by anti-government militants continue to rattle the isolated farming community.
BURNS, Ore. — Winter and spring have passed since an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge ended, but its aftershocks are still shaking this high-desert region of Oregon, with activists setting up “Camp Freedom” where an occupier was killed and organizing a recall election this week against a top county official.
The headquarters of the 188,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was occupied for 41 days, is still closed. Down the road, at The Narrows cafe, saloon, shop and gas station, things have settled.
Co-owner Linda Gainer said the business from reporters, occupiers, protesters against the occupation, and from protesters protesting the protesters, more than made up for any slower days now. The last militants surrendered Feb. 11.
“I met some awesome people. And you know, everybody that came through, they were all polite,” she said, describing how even militia members and anti-occupation protesters exchanged greetings.
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At her place, 26 miles south of Burns, Gainer feels isolated from the divisions that broke open during the takeover and still linger. Burns is the main town in Harney County, which at more than 10,000 square miles is the largest in Oregon. With only 7,100 residents, it is also one of the least populated.
Those divisions are evident in the signs about Tuesday’s special recall election against County Judge Steve Grasty, who for the past 18 years has been the county’s top administrative official. Grasty blocked occupation leader Ammon Bundy from holding a public meeting in a county building, an act cited as justification for the recall effort.
Grasty says it was absurd for Bundy, who said he wanted to turn the federal refuge over to local residents, to ask to use county property.
“He had already taken over, with firearms, a whole compound of buildings. And (the request) didn’t make sense to me, nor did it fit public policy about public safety,” Grasty said.
He sees this election as a referendum on the county’s handling of the crisis.
“I’ll be disappointed if I’m recalled,” Grasty said. “If I’m successful, I think it’s an affirmation that the county government did the right things during the course of the occupation.”
The vast majority of signs in Burns and on ranch fence posts are for Grasty, who, even if the referendum fails, retires in December.
“I certainly hope the recall is defeated hugely,” said Donna Clark, who lives outside Burns on ranchland. She said the recall effort is “sour grapes” for the minority of locals who supported the refuge takeover, which was carried out by outsiders.
More than two dozen occupiers were arrested. Several have pleaded guilty in federal court in Portland to conspiracy in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of firearms possession in a federal facility. Most of the remaining defendants, including Bundy, are to go to trial Sept. 7.
There was one fatality during the takeover. LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher, was shot by Oregon State Police at a roadblock on a snowy road on a mountain pass, far from the refuge as he and others headed for a meeting in an adjacent county. Aerial FBI video footage shows Finicum exit his pickup with his hands up, and then being shot as he reaches for what authorities said was a weapon.
Today, the snow is gone. Grass carpets the forest floor underneath towering ponderosas. At the spot where Finicum died is a makeshift memorial consisting of a stone slab with his LV cattle brand, American flags, a disc that says “land of the free because of the brave,” flowers and other items. Wooden crosses are affixed to trees.
William C. Fisher said he drove to the site three weeks ago from Boise, Idaho, after he heard that sheriff’s deputies were ticketing people for erecting crosses. He began camping out to protect the site. He said one deputy removed crosses, even though roadside crosses for car-crash victims are permitted.
“I am here because there is an American hero that had been murdered over there, and I feel it is my duty that his memorial needs to stand,” Fisher said. “This is a peaceful assembly. This is a peaceful protest. We have that right to assemble and protest and have freedom of speech.”
A few others have joined Fisher. In the woods behind a roadside banner saying “Camp Freedom,” a half-dozen tents have been erected. People dressed in camouflage military uniforms or street clothes sit around a campfire. Tarps provide shade. A decorated tomahawk hangs from a tree.
Someone is always on duty to protect the memorial, said John Hildinger, of Corpus Christi, Texas, wearing an American-flag bandanna on his head.
Larry Jay, a 72-year-old from Burns who describes himself as a Choctaw adopted into the Crow tribe, says the tomahawk and other ceremonial items provide spiritual protection.
“We are the honor guard,” Jay said, his biceps tattooed with Finicum’s brand. “We don’t use labels like patriots or militia.”
Later, a split emerged in the camp, with Jay and Fisher planning to get a permit for a permanent memorial, with others opposed. Fisher plans to pack up the memorial on Monday and deliver it to Finicum’s widow until the permit is issued.
Jay, meanwhile, said he is voting against the judge.
“We tried to get a spot where we could meet and talk, with the ranchers and the ones coming up from … all over,” he said. “Steve Grasty put a stop to that.”