BURNS, Ore. — The meeting was a chance for the community here to discuss the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge, an ongoing event that has drawn national attention to this stretch of eastern Oregon.

It turned into an event that was part political rally, part ode to Harney County, as many of the hundreds of residents who came to the community meeting Wednesday evening voiced their frustrations — and said they wanted the group at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to go home. Others, though, argued that the occupiers had given the community a megaphone to highlight issues between the community and the federal government.

Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward, who has previously urged the occupiers to leave, invited residents to gather and bring questions and concerns about the occupation. People brought few questions to Ward in a meeting that at times turned into a toast to the town’s popular sheriff, a man who has yet to meet with the occupiers or offer a solution to resolve the holdout.

”I don’t believe that just a small handful of people can come from outside and tell us how to lead our lives,” Ward told the crowd that gave him a standing ovation before he even began to speak. He added: “I’m here to ask that we find a peaceful resolution to what’s going on. I’m asking as the Sherriff of Harney County that the people that are occupying our wildlife refuge go home, work out your differences with whoever through the appropriate channels and allow us to get back to our lives.”

As the meeting went on, some of those gathered expressed their support for Ward and for the county. It ended with no plan going forward, although some ideas were floated. Several local ranchers offered to ride out to the refuge on horseback to formally ask rancher Ammon Bundy and his band of mostly out-of-town supporters to leave the refuge they have occupied since Saturday. Another Harney resident suggested the entire county make the trek to the refuge and demand that the occupation end.

Several hours earlier, the native Paiute tribe also called on the occupiers to leave, albeit for a different reason: They said that the land still belonged to them, because a treaty between the federal government and the tribe was not ratified.

“Harney County residents don’t need some clown to come in here and stand up for us,” Burns Paiute tribal councilman Jarvis Kennedy said Wednesday. “We survived without them before, and we’ll survive without them when they’re gone. So they should get the hell out of here. Sorry, but we didn’t ask them here. We don’t want them here.”

At the community meeting, though, people found a soapbox where they complained about government intrusion on ranching rights and overbearing federal regulations. The occupation in Oregon has again brought attention to the decades-long struggle over federal land rights in the West, an issue that has prompted frustration among many who live and work in the region.

Ward wore the hat of a sheriff, civics teacher, loving parent and inspirational speaker at the meeting where he encouraged people to air their issues through appropriate channels. Write letters, talk to representatives and vote, he told residents. He spoke to the citizens as much as he spoke to Bundy and the occupiers.

“You’re not invited to come here and bother with our citizens. That’s not okay. That’s not how we live our lives in Harney County,” Ward said, addressing the occupiers.

Ward said Bundy supporters had been following his parents, and his wife recently had her vehicle tires slashed. She packed up and left town because of the harassment, Ward said.

“I don’t want to see a single person hurt. I don’t want to see anything bad happen,” he said. “When I wake up tomorrow, I want to have pleasant thoughts about you — that you did the right thing, that you packed your bags and went home,” he said between interruptions of applause.

The group of occupiers have said they want to be called “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and insist they are there to help people in the county reclaim their rights and their land.

Ward asked how many of the 300-plus attendees resided in the county. Almost everyone raised their hands. Ward then asked how many wanted to see Bundy and his supporters leave. Almost all of the hands remained in the air.

Community members spent nearly an hour and a half stepping up to a microphone, echoing the sentiments that came from people who kept their hands raised. They mostly said they wanted Bundy and his band to go home.

Others, though, pointed out that without the occupiers, their complaints about government behavior would not be heard this widely.

“I’m not sure I want them to go home,” Kim Rollins said. “Those people brought us a voice.” That limelight gave citizens the chance to air their grievances against the government, he added.

The nearly two-hour-long meeting packed the country fairgrounds parking lots with heavy-duty pickup trucks and vehicles that spilled a tenth of a mile along the road on either side of the fairgrounds. Community members and a sizeable media pool nearly exceeded the meeting room’s 400-person capacity, drawing comments about how folks hadn’t seen so many people in one place since the last county fair.

Merlin Rupp, 80, who has lived in the county for seven of his eight decades, offered praise for Dwight and Steven Hammond, the ranchers who were convicted of arson in a case that drew protesters — and, eventually, the occupiers — to the Burns area.

“They’d do anything for me at the drop of a hat,” he said. “The Hammonds got a raw deal!”

He also lauded the refuge occupiers.

“They brought us all together,” Rupp said. “They’re waking us up!”

Louie Smith agreed, saying of the occupiers, “These guys, I hate to say it, woke every one of you up.”

A handful of other speakers also saw another advantage to the Bundy holdout.

“We never get this many people together,” Jessie Svejcar said.

The town can get cliquish, he noted. People divide themselves along what church they go to and what ranching family they hang with, he said. But for the last week, things looked different. The community came together.

“Let’s just knock this c–p off and go back to being friends and neighbors again,” Svejcar said.

Wolf is a freelance writer.

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