The people of Harney County are grateful one of their region’s thorniest issues is in the national spotlight, but have grown frustrated with the methods of the armed occupiers of an Oregon federal wildlife refuge.
More than 500 people crowded into a hall inside the Harney County Fairgrounds, the first community gathering since about 15 men broke off from a protest march on Saturday to seize the unoccupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters to denounce the federal ownership of public lands and the incarceration of two eastern Oregon ranchers.
The goal of the meeting was to give residents of the county, population 7,100, a chance to ask the sheriff questions. Most simply wanted to make statements.
“This would be a vastly different discussion if those folks weren't threatening force,” said Harney County resident Rob Franks.
During the occupation, the courthouse has been closed, so the 4-H can’t meet. Parents have to watch their children because schools are shut for the week. The sheriff’s office is overwhelmed and has to rely on other counties to send in patrol cars.
The daily rhythm of life here has been interrupted, said resident after resident on Wednesday night. But Harney County Sheriff David Ward raised a more troubling issue. He said one of his wife’s tires had been “flattened,” and said someone followed his parents home.
“You don't come here and intimidate people. That's not how we live our lives in Harney County,” Ward said. “Our wives have a right not to be tailed home. Our pastors have a right to not be shouted at on the street.
"You don't get to threaten me because I disagree with you."
He delivered the last line to raucous applause, then asked for a show of hands: How many people want the occupiers to go home? he asked. At least three-quarters of the room raised their hands.
The meeting took place on the sheriff’s home turf, and he has already established himself as an opponent of the occupiers, who labeled him “an enemy of the people.” Despite occasional shouted curses and challenges to the sheriff from some in the crowd, there did not appear to be significant support for the occupiers’ methods.
“I can't say I don't appreciate what they've done,” said rancher Rodney Johnson. “They want to go home to their families.”
Someone in the crowd shouted, "Then go!"
Johnson glared for a moment, hand on hip, then said he would take anyone “who will stand with me” to the refuge to ask the protesters to leave. Many in the room cheered.
Most speakers began their statements with support for Dwight and Steven Hammond, the father-and-son ranchers whose re-sentencing under the federal mandatory minimum for a terrorism act has inflamed the community.
They were convicted of intentionally setting fires on land that adjoined federal Bureau of Land Management property and were initially given a sentence lighter than the mandatory minimum. They said they set the fires to protect their ranchland.
After being re-sentenced, the Hammonds reported to prison this week.
The ranchers and the residents of the Harney County towns of Burns and Hines expressed almost unanimous support for the principle the activists say they’re bringing to light: vast swaths of land owned by the federal government that restrict the ways landowners can use their property.
“No use is misuse,” said Erin Walton, to applause.
Steven Atkins, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, said he’s lived in cities much more liberal than Burns that were subject to protests similar to that at the refuge.
“I’ve seen this before, and it only ends in bloodshed,” Atkins said.
The strongest opposition to the occupiers came from Garrett Hanneford, who criticized the Bundy family, leaders of the occupation, for the grazing fees they owe on federal land in Nevada.
“There's a time to throw the tea in the sea, but it's not now,” Hanneford said. “I understand that you people don't feel like they have to follow the law, but there are federal grazing fees.”
Some sitting in the crowd booed. One man called out mockingly, “Yeah, whose land is it?” A voice from across the room shouted, “Sit down!”
Johnson, the rancher, said he’s heartened by one thing – the unity in the crowd. First, he said half-jokingly, the entire town needed to delete Facebook, which was hosting heated arguments that frayed relations among townspeople.
“There’s people threatening to boycott other people’s businesses they've known their whole lives,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the town has been riven by cliques: who goes to church with whom, which ranching family gets along with their neighbors. The standoff, despite the anxiety it’s caused, has brought the people of the county together, Johnson said.
“If I have to have an armed standoff to get this many people and have a dance in town...,” he said, trailing off to loud laughter. “Let's just knock this crap off. Let's go back to being friends and neighbors."
For the latest on the standoff in Oregon, follow @nigelduara on Twitter.