BURNS — After Ammon Bundy jumped atop a snow bank in the Safeway parking lot in Burns on Saturday and revealed his plan, Redmond resident BJ Soper said he felt betrayed.
Bundy, an anti-government activist whose family and allied militiamen have long been at loggerheads with the federal government over grazing rights, announced he was going to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a collection of federally owned buildings with a large taxidermy collection about 30 miles south of town. Bundy, who lives in Montana, told the crowd of about 300 gathered for a protest that whoever wanted to take a “hard stand” should follow him, Soper recalled.
Soper had helped organize the protest to support two local ranchers convicted of committing arson on land leased from the federal government. Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven, 46, had been ordered by a federal judge to turn themselves in today to a prison in California. The sentence came after a federal judge, Ann Aiken, ruled that their prior imprisonment for arson was too short — a ruling Soper and his organization, the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, argues is double jeopardy and a violation of the Constitution.
As Bundy and a handful of others gave media members interviews and tours at the refuge Sunday, Soper was in Burns, meeting and talking with community members worried and unsure about what would happen next.
“We’ve just been talking, meeting with people, calming fears, putting out fires,” said Soper, 39. “Not only was the community’s trust hijacked by what happened, but mine was.”
Soper calls Bundy “a brother and friend” and credits him with connecting the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard with the Hammond family. The protest, which featured a good number of armed marchers, was intended “to show support whatever their decision, whether to adhere to their prison sentence or to stand up and say, ‘My rights have been violated.’”
“If they had wanted to stand up, straight up, we would have defended them,” Soper said in the lobby of a Burns hotel Sunday.
Soper was adamant he had no idea of Bundy’s plan, blaming the occupation for stoking fears of violence among locals.
Andrew Bedortha, 27, a Constitutional Guard member from Bend, said he spent part of the day helping ranchers who were fearful to check on their cattle. Other people in town asked members of the guard to stand watch outside their homes overnight, Bedortha added.
Occupying buildings and vowing to hold them by force, if necessary, isn’t what Bedortha sees as falling within the scope of the guard, a group he calls a “constitutional education organization.”
“We live in a post-Constitution society,” he said. “My family has a large ranch in Paulina, and they’re worried. They’re worried about restrictions on water, changing rules on grazing. This isn’t just a problem here — it’s a Western states problem.”
The federal government, Soper and Bedortha contend, has forsaken its obligation to promote ranching, logging and mining on public land and has instead fallen under the sway of environmentalists, in the process hurting small-town economies.
“We had the spotted owl years ago, and the sage grouse coming now,” Bedortha said, referencing federal laws that limit commercial activities to protect threatened species. “It’s a culture issue. There are people who have never been out here and don’t understand the life of a logger or rancher.”
Soper said the Hammonds are “only a symptom of the problem of mismanaged land,” as the fires the father and son set were intended to protect the land from even worse wildfires, the Hammonds say.
“It is so restrictive you can’t make a living,” Soper said. “People don’t realize what’s going on. They think iPhones and hats grow in stores. But wealth comes from the ground, and these problems will trickle down to everybody soon enough.”
Soper said his protest was a success and, while he wasn’t happy with the occupation, called it “a reflection of the frustration people have with government.”
Nonetheless, he emphasized no members of his organization “are over there with guns.” He noted the group gave out gifts to 38 needy kids in Central Oregon this Christmas.
At the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, occupiers ferried media members a few hundred feet down a road in the back of trucks to look around the compound. Up above, an occupier kept watch from an observation tower, accessed with the help of a jerry-rigged ladder that reached over a security fence.
Bundy announced he would stick to a schedule of 11 a.m. briefings, but in the early evening on Sunday, a handful of the occupiers milled around in the area they said was open to the public.
LaVoy Finicum, of Arizona, who called himself a friend and neighbor of the Bundys, described his role as “second fiddle.”
While noting he was armed, Finicum emphasized that he hoped the occupation would have a peaceful end, as he plans “to be able to go home and see my kids and grandkids.”
So far, Finicum said, no law enforcement members had appeared at the refuge.
“I’ll leave as soon as possible but stay as long as necessary,” he said. “I see this as a nice place for people to gather and to uphold the Constitution.”
Despite stirring fears in town, Finicum said the occupation was a good thing.
“It’s brought the attention out to the Hammonds,” he said, adding he hasn’t met the family. “If we hadn’t done this, I don’t know if it would have entered the national consciousness.”
Spitting in the wind?
Walking his fox terrier Daisey through the snowy and empty main drag of Burns on Sunday afternoon, Spike Traverso said he viewed the occupation the same way he viewed the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“It’s only something people who don’t have jobs have time to do,” said Traverso, who declined to give his age, but said he was born when Hitler ran Germany.
Given how cold it’s been, Traverso said he didn’t expect the protest to last through the week. Nonetheless, he said he sympathized with the Hammonds.
“You should give your sentence and decide,” he said. “There’s no need to call someone back and say you need more time.”
Shopping in Safeway, Brian Dalgliesh, 71, said the occupation was “just spitting in the wind.”
“Personally, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s not going to accomplish anything. I hope it doesn’t get violent, but the best way to read it is as a hostile takeover.”
Danika Kerr, 18, said she wasn’t too worried about violence, though she was upset schools had been closed because of the occupation.
“Nobody should feel threatened in their own community,” she said.
However, Kerr said she sympathized with the protesters who linked the government to the city’s bad economy.
Kerr grew up in Burns and called the place “a nice little community” but said she was thinking about moving to Central Oregon to have a better shot of finding a job.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org