BURNS, Ore. — Monday evening at the empty Elkhorn Cafe, owner Terry Williams was washing dishes silently. He paused to brew a cup of coffee and talk about a group of armed men occupying federal buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The occupiers, who are mainly from Nevada and Arizona, are outsiders, he said. Williams, 73, and a lifelong resident of Burns, said the militiamen don’t represent the locals.
Underneath a seemingly infinite expanse of rolling, rocky hills dusted in snow, about a dozen or so men led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy have mounted a would-be insurrection against the federal government. Bundy and other men with him say they’re not leaving until Dwight and Steven Hammond are freed from federal prison, their case is examined by an independent investigative board and federally owned land in Harney County, Ore., is relinquished by the government to the people.
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It’s about defending rights within the Constitution, Bundy said Monday.
The group broke in to a Bureau of Land Management bunk house during the weekend to begin their takeover. Now, the militia patrols the area on ATVs and takes shifts in a watch tower, waiting to see if authorities arrive. So far nothing much has happened.
The police have said little except “Go home.” Harney County Sheriff David Ward said during a press conference Monday that the “armed occupation” of the federal building isn’t what Burns residents want, and the militia should disband.
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The militia has said repeatedly that they plan to stay for years.
Locals have said group’s claim to defend the plight of the Hammonds, a father and son pair who recently returned to federal prison after an arson conviction, and to be acting with their interests in mind, is tenuous. Some see the situation only as a distraction.
Burns schools are closed and employees who would normally be at the wildlife refuge haven’t been able to return.
“The local kids have a week off school. They have to play basketball games in John Day and practice in Drewsey,” Williams said.
The true cause is mandatory minimum sentencing laws, he said. The Hammonds were subject to minimum sentences for their arson convictions. Part of the controversy is that the Hammonds were given a lenient sentence, which they served. In a rare move, the federal government appealed the sentence, and the Hammonds were sentenced again for the mandatory five years. That double sentencing, many residents say, is unjust, but taking up arms against the government is another thing altogether.
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The Hammonds turned themelves in to federal authorities in California on Monday.
“We might agree with the Hammonds, but we don’t need that out there,” Williams said of the occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
He said that although Portland and Salem may have their differences with eastern Oregon, the Bundys at the refuge don’t represent all of Burns or Harney County.
Burns is a small town of less than 3,000. There are only a couple of stoplights, and locals say the place to be for town gossip is the Safeway market. It’s an oasis of sorts, nestled within a vast rural landscape. This is a different Oregon than Portland, or Eugene, or even Bend. This is the Oregon where men often wear cowboy hats and carry sidearms just out of habit.
Downtown, several feet of snow piles are a makeshift meridian. Heavy-duty trucks are the primary means of transportation. A used tobacco pouch can be seen spit onto the ground, frozen into fresh ice. It’s rugged Oregon, and ranching Oregon. Yet, it’s still the Pacific Northwest, and politeness is customary.
Barbara Ormond, a co-owner of Country Lane Quilts, said Burns has been unsettled by the thought of violence. Normally the town is a nice, quiet place.
“Come and visit,” Ormond said. “It’s a great place.”
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Ladonna Baron, also a co-owner of the quilt store, said things in the town haven’t been too bad since the occupation of the refuge, although it’s pulled the community into different corners of the ring: some agree with the militia’s tactics, or even want to join. Others think it’s a fool’s errand or a farce.
“We support our community,” Baron said. “We support our ranchers. Personally, I feel what happened to the Hammonds was an injustice. But the militia is here on their own agenda.”
She added if there was something to tell the militia, it’s “Go away.”
“Let us get back to normal here,” Ormond said.
Williams said he thinks that will happen sooner rather than later. If the police aren’t going to go in guns blazing, the Nevada ranchers cooped up in the refuge may be driven out by other means.
“It shouldn’t be all that long,” he said. “Especially if you get mother nature to drop temperatures to 15 below.”
Gordon Friedman reports for the (Salem, Ore.) Statesman Journal; Follow Gordon Friedman on Twitter: @gordonrfriedman
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