BURNS, Ore. (AP) — Cement barriers block off streets around the county courthouse in the small eastern Oregon town of Burns where police called in from around the state to respond to a standoff at a nearby wildlife refuge have set up a command center – and when officers go out they travel in pairs.
About 30 miles to the south, an armed group protesting federal land use policy has taken over a national wildlife refuge. Men with what appear to be military-style rifles scan the snow-covered rangeland from atop an old fire lookout that gives them a sweeping view of roads leading in.
As the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge hits the two-week mark, people in this high desert area are growing increasingly weary and wary.
“If we all keep a calm about us everything will be OK,” said Brenda Pointere, who was coming out of a Burns restaurant. “It started out calm, but the longer it goes on — you start to hear rumors.”
It started Jan. 2 as a protest about two area ranchers convicted of arson who were returned to prison to serve longer sentences. Afterward, a group led by Ammon Bundy traveled to occupy the refuge to protest the ranchers return to prison and demand that the 300-square-mile refuge be turned over to local control.
Bundy said he understood the frustration of Harney County residents with the federal government having spent several months in the community earlier.
“They have been suppressed to the point where they’re ready to act,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday inside one of the heated wildlife refuge buildings while his brother, Ryan, and two women sat nearby.
Burns, nearby Hines and the local area have been in an economic tailspin for decades, the biggest blow the loss of a lumber mill with some blaming federal restrictions on timber harvest. Restrictions on other federal lands are a common theme of frustration. The wildlife refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has some good ranchland that Ryan Bundy says will be filled with cattle this spring, though he declined to give details.
“I think the mass of the community, especially the rural community, are 100 percent in favor of what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Ryan Bundy said. But, he noted, “There’s a split camp, so to speak.”
The Bundys had planned a meeting with community members Friday night, but that is in limbo after county officials said they couldn’t use the local fairground.
They have said they will not leave until the ranchers jailed for arson are freed and the refuge is turned over to local control. So far authorities have made no move to remove the group from the refuge.
Locals who agreed to be interviewed were themselves conflicted, expressing anger toward federal land policies but bothered by the armed takeover.
“I don’t agree with anything they’re doing right now,” said Ben McCanna about the occupiers at the refuge, about 4 miles from where he lives. But McCanna, 54, also said the ranchers’ return to prison was wrong, and that he was irked that the U.S. Forest Service closed off access to one of his favorite camping spots in the nearby Malheur National Forest.
But if the wildlife refuge falls out of federal control, he said he expected no trespassing signs to go up.
The issue of land management is one discussed throughout the West. A group of mostly Republican congressmen is holding meetings in southern Utah next week to hear concerns from local officials who worry a Bureau of Land Management proposal unfairly restricts livestock grazing, motorized recreation. Officials in southern Utah’s Washington County said the plan violates terms negotiated under a 2009 law that established two conservation areas.
The BLM plan is intended to restore native habitat for protected Mojave Desert Tortoise, but local officials say it unfairly hurts ranchers and could harm the local economy.
U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican who represents the area, requested that a House subcommittee on federal lands hold the hearing in St. George on Jan. 22 to hear local grievances about the plan.
In Oregon, Cheryl Drinkwater lives on a ranch near the refuge and said she has adult children working for the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. She said local federal officials are fine, but edicts from Washington D.C. cause problems. Her view of the current conflict is that the people with the most common sense are the least likely to make themselves heard.
“Hope I don’t get in trouble over that,” she said, describing the atmosphere in the town as tense.
Meanwhile, the influx of law enforcement officials, reporters, politicians and the curious has caused something of an economic boom in January, typically a slow month for the area.
Cherrie Glick, a waitress at the Apple Peddler, said that in the last several weeks she’s earned a couple hundred dollars more in tips, plus been called in to work more hours, as have other employees.
“Everybody who has come in has been nice to us,” she said, noting she wasn’t allowed to talk about the wildlife refuge.
Meanwhile, nobody is too sure how it will end.
“I hope it’s peaceful,” Kathy Warburton of Burns said.
Associated Press reporter Michelle Price contributed from Salt Lake City
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