BURNS — For nearly a week, a band of anti-government outsiders occupying a nature reserve has put Harney County, a remote patch of land in southeastern Oregon, in the national spotlight.
But Wednesday, a group of local residents banded together to reclaim the conversation and send their uninvited guests a message: We appreciate the effort, but it’s time for you to go.
Pickup trucks and TV news vans lined the long, snow covered road leading to the Memorial Building at the Harney County Fairgrounds Wednesday evening, where hundreds of Harney residents and people from neighboring counties gathered to hear Sheriff David Ward speak about the ongoing armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“There’s a lot of things I disagree with in this world, but we can work through it like adults, peacefully, with a united front,” Ward said, calling on the residents to “unite peacefully” and for the armed protesters at the wildlife refuge “to go home and let us get back to our lives.”
In front of an American flag and flanked by state and county law enforcement agents who’ve been deployed to Harney County from across Oregon over the last few days, the visibly nervous Ward received a standing ovation during his impassioned speech.
For nearly a week, Arizona resident Ammon Bundy and a gang of supporters have been holed up in the refuge arguing they have a right to the federal land and the support of locals.
On Thursday, Ward met with Bundy and conveyed the wishes of local citizens, asking he and his supporters to leave. Bundy declined, but did agree to meet with the sheriff again on Friday.
Wednesday night, community members said that while they appreciate national attention to the federal land rights debate that has long raged in the western part of the U.S., they prefer to speak for themselves and not to be represented by Bundy’s crusaders.
“I’m uneasy about Bundy and his outside help because I don’t know them and how they will act,” said Mitch Singer, a rancher who has spent most of his life in Harney County. “That being said, I appreciate much of their message and admire their sense of doing the right thing.”
According to Ward, since the wave of “people from outside the community” hit town, his staff and family have been the target of threats and vandalism. He said his deputies have been followed, his parents harassed and his wife’s car vandalized.
“Somebody flattened my wife’s tire recently,” Ward said. “She packed up and left town. Sometimes the stress is a bit much.”
As Ward spoke, a group of people ranging in age from 11 to mid-70s — many wearing cowboy hats and denim — lined up for a turn at the microphone. Once it was time for questions and comments, Ward turned the floor over to Harney County residents only.
Many raised their hands when Ward asked who wanted to resolve this dispute peacefully and send the armed protesters home.
Kate Marsh, a soft-spoken woman with short silver hair and a bright pink vest, said the exposure the occupation has given Harney County and its concerns does not outweigh the strain it has put on local people, from the schools being closed to community meetings cancelled and the law enforcement agencies from other counties that have spared officers to help keep Harney County safe.
“It’s very nice to know that we’re on television and the radio and all the other media,” Marsh said. But “we don’t need outsiders to bring public attention. We can do that ourselves.”
Though Ward declined to comment on the law enforcement strategy, several people volunteered to accompany the sheriff to the refuge in the morning to tell the activists to leave.
“Let’s ask them to go home,” Ward said.