BURNS, ORE. —The shout startles everyone: “Provocateur at the gate!”
A young man runs through the communal kitchen at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, two others fast behind. They are dressed in camouflage and pulling on military-style vests. All three wear black balaclavas as they rush outside and run to the front entrance of the headquarters that has been held by anti-government occupiers for the past two weeks.
The burst of turmoil interrupts an otherwise quiet afternoon. Several dozen armed men and women now control this federal facility in remote southeastern Oregon, a growing siege staged to protest the imprisonment of two local ranchers and a federal government that they say is out of control. They spend their days concocting strategies, meeting with reporters and well-wishers, and organizing mundane chore charts, all while remaining on hair-trigger alert to any effort to infiltrate their ranks or forcibly end the occupation.
There is no visible law enforcement presence for miles; the occupiers are free to come and go as they please. Still, the group’s members are certain that their movements and communications are being monitored by police and the FBI. They listen for drones, stare down passing vehicles and keep a 360-degree watch from a 150-foot observation tower adjacent to the compound. They are on guard.
On this day, the threat quickly dissipates. “All stations be advised the provocateur is driven off,” a voice crackles over a hand-held radio a few minutes after the commotion in the kitchen.
But it’s a brittle peace. LaVoy Finicum, a 54-year-old Arizona rancher and one of the group’s leaders, says the siege will continue until the federal government cedes control of the 187,000-acre refuge to Harney County.
“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” says Finicum, who wears a cowboy hat and a Colt .45 pistol holstered on his hip.
Federal authorities have kept mum on the situation, but many of the 7,000 or so residents of this massive rural county aren’t happy with the armed takeover of Malheur. Last week, Harney County Judge Steve E. Grasty, the county’s top elected official, refused to permit the occupiers to use the fairgrounds or any other county facility to meet with people from the nearby town of Burns.
“We were not going to make a public facility available to any group connected with criminal activity,” Grasty said in an interview. “We have seen them take over public buildings before, so who’s to say they wouldn’t do that again?”
With no resolution in sight, people are growing increasingly apprehensive about how long all of this will last. And how all of this will end.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, sits in a vast high-desert basin circled by mountain ranges. Burns, a town of 2,800 and the county seat, is 30 miles away on a narrow, two-lane road. Covered in new snow, the beautiful, austere refuge feels as removed from civilization as the moon and almost as desolate.
How it came to be the site of the latest anti-government showdown is as much a story about the two imprisoned ranchers as it is a sign of long-standing frustration with the federal government’s land management in the West.
The ranchers, Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, were convicted in 2012 of arsons on federal land that they committed in 2001 and 2006. Both served prison time and were released. But last fall, a federal appellate judge ruled that their sentences were too lenient and ordered them back to jail.
The decision provoked a heated response from many in Harney County, who considered the Hammonds good neighbors who had already served their time. It also got the attention of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose decades-long dispute over unpaid grazing fees escalated into a showdown between federal officials and armed protesters in 2014. Law enforcement officers eventually backed away; Cliven Bundy still refuses to pay the fees.
Ammon Bundy, 40, runs a business near Phoenix. He met with the Hammonds in December and led a Jan. 2 march to protest both their impending imprisonment and overreach by the federal government. An hour before the march, the Bundy brothers and others hatched a plan to seize the Malheur refuge and encourage others to join them.
Two weeks later, Ammon Bundy sits at a desk in a refuge administrative office. A documentary crew working on a film about Western land use is peppering him with questions. He is soft-spoken, articulate, impassioned and certain of his positions.
After the crew leaves, he admits that he is tired. Asked if he wishes things had unfolded differently, he sits up and leans forward.
“Everything is happening just like it’s supposed to,” he says. “That’s what you have when you have divine guidance that is assisting. The right people come. The right words are said.”
While there is some local support for the occupation, many attempts to win public sympathy have backfired. The occupiers tore down part of a fence separating the refuge from the property of a local rancher, who told the Oregonian newspaper that he did not approve of the action.
Birders, hunters and fisherman have joined forces on social media under the hashtag
When occupiers put out a call for supplies to get them through the winter, opponents sent nail polish, pedicure socks and a 55-gallon drum of “passion” lubricant — courtesy of a co-creator of the popular Cards Against Humanity game, Esquire magazine reported. Meanwhile, the Burns Paiute Tribe, which considers the reserve part of its ancestral territory, is urging the federal government to prosecute the occupiers for trampling ancient burial grounds and potentially looting sacred artifacts, some as much as 10,000 years old.
On Friday, one of the protesters was arrested in Burns and charged with theft of federal property after he drove a refuge pickup truck into town. It was the first arrest since the occupation began.
Ammon Bundy dismisses concerns that he and the other occupiers could face criminal charges for the takeover. In his view, the federal government has no legal authority to act because Washington had no constitutional authority to establish the refuge in the first place. But he also says he has no idea how or when the siege will end.
“Our desire is for this to be a peaceful effort to restore rights,” he said. “But no one should stand by and let their rights be taken when it comes to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
With each passing day, more gun-toting people arrive, from Alabama, Utah, North Carolina, Georgia. The vast majority are white men, but others are coming, too.
A woman from California, who would identify herself only as a mom, said she came to be on the right side of history.
And Brendan Dowd, who is black, drove from Colorado Springs to “fight against all the negative things the federal government is doing.” Dowd, 31, said it was “time for the people to stand up and take control.”
As the occupation grows, the refuge is being transformed into a hive of revolutionary rhetoric and frantic homemaking. What was an exercise room is now a massive pantry, brimming with such staples as flour, eggs and beef, and such non-staples as Swiss Miss instant cocoa, Cheetos and Cheez-Its.
A large American flag hangs on the wall of a communal meeting room, a larger flat-screen TV below it. Nearby, a whiteboard is crammed with inspirational messages: “The loudest person in the room is usually the weakest in the room”; “Truth Has No Agenda — It’s The Truth!” In the hallway leading to the bunk rooms another sign is posted: “Quiet please. Don’t slam doors! Men and women sleeping.”
Jason Patrick, a former roofer from Georgia, arrived in December. Like many occupiers, he carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket and refers frequently to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, which he says limits federal authority to the District of Columbia and lands purchased with consent of the states.
Patrick, 43, has a graying beard and wears a camouflage baseball cap with an upside down American flag insignia — a logo adopted by anti-government activists as a symbol of a nation in distress. He’s sitting at the wheel of a beat-up Chevy pickup truck and smoking a Marlboro Light. The Great Recession hit him hard, he says, and he became increasingly fed up with what he thinks is an oppressive government that no longer answers to the people.
“We have anarchy now, but it’s the government that practices it,” Patrick says. “They can say and do whatever they want, with no accountability.”
Deep criticism of the federal government exists outside the compound, as well. Residents of Harney County, one of the poorest in the state, say that it is hard to find a job and harder still to find one that pays well. Many share a general sense that the federal government overregulates the vast stretches of Western land under its control. But the local and federal governments are also among the county’s biggest employers. It is not easy to find a family without some connection to a government job.
While the occupiers have won support from some county residents, others are fiercely opposed, and the rift is testing the bonds of friendship. One local business owner, who declined to be identified for fear of escalating the conflict, said he told his employees to stop talking about the occupation at work because it was causing too much friction.
“I hate it,” said Grasty, the Harney County judge. “This place is full of good people. It’s my home. But this is tearing us apart. I’ve lost friends.”
For now, the protesters remain firmly in place. The FBI has established a command center in Burns at the small city-owned airport outside of the town center, but law enforcement continues to maintain a low profile. And a resolution feels very far away.
On Thursday, a supporter drove to the refuge from neighboring Nevada to drop off 180 pounds of frozen meat. The occupiers are hunkering down, ready for whatever.
Near the refuge entrance, Corey Lequieu sits on an ATV with an AR-15 rifle slung across his lap.
The 45-year-old Army veteran from Nevada has just finished a four-hour shift in the observation tower. If the feds come, he says, he’ll be ready.
“What’s the worst they can do — kill me?”
Back in Burns, a clerk at one of the town’s few motels said the FBI has booked rooms through March.