Ore. Community Becomes Unwilling Symbol For Anti-Government Movement

Oct 12, 2016

On a recent Saturday in Burns, Ore., Cheryl Smith decided to have a little fun. Dressed as a farmer in a floppy hat and overalls, she joined other costume-clad ranchers, loggers and miners on a flatbed float passing through the center of town during the annual Harney County Fair parade.

They waived American flags and passed out pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution while standing above a sign reading "Endangered Species: Who's Endangered? The People and Our Way of Life."

The Endangered Species Act is a familiar target of Ammon Bundy and his militia supporters, who came to Oregon's remote Harney County and took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. Even though the occupiers were arrested more than eight months ago, it's clear their message is still resonating with people like Smith in this rural outpost. The trial for the militants is close to wrapping up.

"I hope they'll be acquitted," she says. "I don't believe the charges."

A float with costume-clad ranchers, loggers and miners passes through the center of Burns, Ore., during the annual Harney County Fair parade.
Amanda Peacher / OPB

Roughly the size of Maryland but with a population of about 7,000, Harney County found itself in the international media spotlight during a 41-day siege at the refuge 30 miles south of Burns. At the time, the militants pledged to stay until the quiet, high desert refuge was turned over to local control.

It's been a high-profile trial about an occupation that has torn the town of Burns apart. There are people in the community who, like Smith, support the idea behind the siege. But the vast majority still bemoan the fact that their tight-knit community — and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — are now a symbol of the anti-federal government movement.

When the parade float of Bundy supporters went by Judge Steve Grasty, the head of Harney County government, he turned his back in protest when Smith's float passed by on the street.

"I don't care about Bundy," Grasty says. "He came in used us, used our community."

Getting the 'ranchers back to ranching'

The siege at the refuge was just the latest armed confrontation over the federal government's ownership — and control of — millions of acres of federal lands in the West. Bundy and six others are now in a federal courtroom 280 miles away in Portland facing conspiracy charges. And Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch and leader of the movement, is also in custody in Nevada on similar charges stemming from a standoff at his ranch in 2014.

So far the trial for the Oregon occupiers hasn't focused on the issue of federal lands or the aftermath for the community that unwillingly hosted the occupation because the judge says the effects on Harney County aren't relevant to the conspiracy charges.

First protected by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most important migratory bird corridors on the U.S. West Coast. Its lush grasses and wetlands are also important for local cattle ranchers.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

"I think it's kind of unfair in a way," says Liz Appelman, a retired federal worker who lives in Burns. "We went through a whole lot in a short amount of time. Where does Harney County get its justice?"

But for Smith and a handful of others in Harney County, the occupiers' message of getting "loggers back to logging and ranchers back to ranching" felt like an awakening.

"I do not in my heart believe at any point they were confrontational," Smith says. "They weren't here to hurt or harm, they were here to educate."

Like a lot of people in Burns, she remembers a far different time here. There used to be several timber mills in the county. She once worked in one. There was more land available for cattle grazing. Burns had a thriving downtown, and Harney County had some of the highest average wages in all of Oregon.

Those days are gone.

"I'd been feeling like I've become an ostrich and I'd had my head in the sand because I didn't feel like I had any power," Smith says. Bundy's arrival energized her.

A town divided

It's true that in Harney County, economic frustrations run nearly as deep as resentment toward the federal government. Like a lot of the rural West, the bulk of the land here is owned and controlled by the federal government (roughly three quarters in Harney County's case), and many believe that's long hindered economic development.

Still, a majority of residents didn't support the occupation that was mostly staged by outsiders, and they didn't appreciate strangers telling them what to do.

That opposition appears to have gotten bigger and more vocal since the trial began in September.

This past summer, Bundy sympathizers organized a recall vote against Judge Grasty to try and unseat him from office. It was easily defeated, and Grasty said his community is now moving forward. Still, in his home just outside town, he keeps a shotgun at the ready near his front door. It's been there since the Bundy's first arrived in Burns.

"This occupation kind of drove a wedge in the community," says Jess Wenick, an ecologist at the refuge. "It's hurt relationships, it's divided churches."

The occupation also divided Wenick's family, literally. In January, he was moved to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in Portland while his young family moved in with his parents in Burns due to safety concerns.

The refuge has since partially reopened. But some of his colleagues — biologists at the refuge — have since requested transfers or quit because the climate in the county toward federal employees remains tense after the occupation. Some locals told NPR they've even seen some outside militia and Bundy sympathizers starting to trickle back into the county since the start of the trial.

For Wenick, it's a sad chapter for his hometown.

"It seems that a lot of the people that were against the government and stood very, very strongly were completely unaware of all the things that had been taking place over the years and how the community actually came along beside the refuge," Wenick says.

Wenick is proudly referring to something you hear a lot in Harney County: After decades of fighting about land issues on the refuge, ranchers and conservation groups and the government had started to find common ground recently on everything from protecting native ancestral lands to managing wildfires and livestock grazing allotments.

For rancher Gary Miller, the story of Harney County is pretty much the antithesis of the version the Bundys told.

"What I've found interesting, a lot of people that are talking about federal lands and government overreach and [grazing] permits, don't even have a permit," he says.

One recent cold, drizzly morning, Miller and his sons drove hundreds of cattle across a highway toward the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where they have permits to graze. On horseback, wearing frayed leather chaps and a worn black hat, Miller is a quintessential image of an American cowboy. His family has ranched in Harney County for more than a hundred years.

For generations, rancher Gary Miller and his family have held federal grazing permits to run cattle on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

"There's been some good things that have happened in Harney County," Miller says. "Really they should be a role model for the nation on some of the collaborative efforts."

Around the West, many ranchers around have said they resent what happened with the standoff in Oregon. They say it's one thing to storm a wildlife refuge with guns to force an issue and it's another to actually spend long hours and late evenings working through tough issues, going to meetings and volunteering time to work out deals.

Miller says he's not sure where all that collaboration sits now after all the drama.

"There's people that have drawn a side, and they will not do business with someone that's got an opinion on it," Miller says.

Miller is watching the news about the trial as much as he can, and he wants the occupiers to face consequences. But at the same time, he's busy-- he's got cows to take care of and doesn't want news of the occupiers to dominate his life. He's ready to move on, and to keep working on a better way forward for his community.

"We all, in the end, want the same end result," Miller says. "We want a better America, you know, and not ruin where we live.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit


The trial for the militants who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon last winter is close to wrapping up. The militants were led by Ammon Bundy. And they were protesting the federal government's control of public lands. This has been a high-profile trial about an occupation that, as it happened, tore apart the nearby little town of Burns, Ore.

Reporting on the saga were NPR's Kirk Siegler and reporter Amanda Peacher with Oregon Public Broadcasting, who both recently traveled back to Burns. Good morning to you both.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, Kirk, take us back to the basics. How did this start?

SIEGLER: Well, this started when Ammon Bundy and his militia followers, they had initially come to the area to protest the government's treatment of two local ranchers who had pled guilty to arson charges. Now, Ammon of course is the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who's at the center of this sort of lands movement. And the Bundys want to turn over all federal land in the West to local control. And so this protest turned into a much larger armed occupation out at the refuge in an attempt to do just that.

MONTAGNE: Amanda, you were on the ground for most of the 41-day siege. What was it like for that community there, that rural community?

PEACHER: Well, there were a few people in the community who supported the militants and the idea of the siege. But the vast majority of the community wanted these people to go. The militants were from outside. They were strangers to this small town. And it created a very tense environment in Burns.

MONTAGNE: So Burns, Ore., was thrust into the international media spotlight along with the entire siege. Not, though, much has been said about it at this trial. What is it like there now?

SIEGLER: Well, that's exactly what we wanted to find out, Renee. So we went back and started our reporting at the recent Harney County Fair.

PEACHER: The Harney County Fair is probably the biggest event of the year here. There's a rodeo, there are 4-H kids showing their pigs and rabbits that they've been raising all year long.

SIEGLER: And the main event, the parade through downtown Burns. There's a float in support of the local sheriff, Dave Ward. He was one of the most vocal opponents of the armed occupation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over loudspeaker) Dave Ward is a true Harney County hero.

PEACHER: And then another float passes with several people who supported the Bundys. They're dressed up as ranchers, loggers and miners. And there's a sign on the side that says, these are the endangered species.

SIEGLER: That's a riff on the Endangered Species Act. It's a favorite target of the Bundys. Now, on this float is Cheryl Smith (ph), who doesn't think the Bundys did anything wrong.

CHERYL SMITH: I do not in my heart believe at any point were they confrontational. They're nice people.

PEACHER: Smith remembers a more prosperous time here. The county used to have several timber mills, and some of the highest average wages in Oregon.

SIEGLER: And for her, Ammon Bundy's message of getting the loggers back to logging and the ranchers back to ranching was like this awakening.

SMITH: For me personally, I've been feeling like I've become an ostrich. (Laughter) And I had my head in the sand because I didn't feel I had any power.

SIEGLER: This feeling like she didn't have any power, this sense of disenfranchisement you hear in places like this is something we're hearing a lot in national politics right now.

PEACHER: Now, it's true there is a lot of mistrust toward the federal government in places like this. But in this case, most people in Harney County did not support the occupiers. When that float went by, I saw one guy turn his back in protest.

SIEGLER: It was Judge Steve Grasty, the head of the county government.

STEVE GRASTY: I don't care about Bundy. He came in, used us, used our community. Yeah, it happened here. But it was the wrong place.

PEACHER: This past summer, Grasty easily survived a recall vote that was organized by Bundy supporters. But when I visited him, I noticed his shotgun is still at the ready at his front door. He put it there way back when the Bundys first arrived in town.

SIEGLER: People are still on edge. Take Jess Wenick, he grew up here and has worked as an ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out at the refuge for most of his career.

JESS WENICK: This occupation kind of drove a wedge in the community. It's hurt relationships, it's divided churches. It has done a lot...

SIEGLER: Since the occupation, Wenick says some of his co-workers - biologists at the refuge - have quit or they're asking for transfers because the climate here for federal workers is just too tense. He says it's sad.

WENICK: It seems that a lot of the people that were against the government and stood very, very strongly were completely unaware of all the things that have been taking place over the last several years and how the community actually came along beside the refuge.

PEACHER: What Wenick is talking about is something you hear a lot in Harney County. After decades of disputes, more recently ranchers and environmentalists and the government had figured out how to work together on the refuge. Pretty much the antithesis of the story the Bundys told here.

SIEGLER: And this collaboration was a big deal because in rural western counties like this, the government owns almost all of the land. And decisions about who can do what on that land are always contentious.

PEACHER: And now in Harney County, there's concern that the occupation threw a wrench into all that hard work.


PEACHER: So here's Gary Miller (ph). His family has ranched here for generations.

SIEGLER: On this cold and drizzly morning, he and his sons are moving hundreds of cattle across a highway near the wildlife refuge. Miller says he's not sure where all that collaboration sits now after all the drama.

GARY MILLER: There's people that have drawn a side. And they will not do business with someone that's got an opinion on it.

SIEGLER: Now around the West, I've talked to quite a few ranchers like Miller who resent what happened out here. They say these outside guys just stormed in with their guns and took over a refuge, when ranchers like him had spent years of their own time sitting around a table with all sides, trying to work out deals.

MILLER: You know, I felt better than the last six or eight years than I have felt in a long time. Just, you know, there's been some good things happened in Harney County. You know, really they should be a role model for the nation on some of the collaborative efforts.

PEACHER: Now, people like Miller are ready for this trial to be over. The occupation itself was a huge disruption to his cattle operation. But he doesn't have time to follow it too closely. He's got a lot of work to do. This is his livelihood out here.


MONTAGNE: Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting and NPR's Kirk Siegler reporting there from rural Eastern Oregon.

And just one last thought here. I'm curious if there might still be more trouble in the future at that wildlife refuge?

PEACHER: Well, that is still a big concern. The refuge hasn't fully reopened yet. And there is some worry that it could be a target for people who sympathize with the Bundys.

SIEGLER: And in fact, Renee, I'd say some people when I was out there even told me that since the trial had begun again, they've started seeing more people trickling back into town, people that they suspected were militia or militia sympathizers. So it's something we'll have to watch.

MONTAGNE: Kirk and Amanda, thank you very much.

PEACHER: You're welcome.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.