I have a lot of free time on my hands these days, and when I’m not trying to remedy that situation, my mind wanders. More often than not, my body follows. I’m a bit of a gypsy, and this time I felt the pull to leave Oregon’s Willamette Valley and head east of the mountains to Harney County in the southeastern corner of the state.
It doesn’t take much to get me to head east. I’ve spent many Summers riding my motorcycle all over this big countryside, inhaling the spicy desert scents and imagining what it was like to see it for the first time as a settler, or how it felt (and must still feel) as a rancher to sit on horseback with the sound of cows lowing nearby and a nearly endless expanse of sage and undulating grassland. The views here inspire those kinds of daydreams. The expansive vistas are stopped only by the plateaus and colorful mountains in the distance. Here in Harney County, marshes and lakes abound, too. It’s only a little harder for me to imagine what it was like before American settlers came to this land. For much longer, native peoples lived here, free to hunt and go about their lives and traditions, and I tend to romanticize that time even more than I do the American West. No matter who the occupants are, or what story is being told, I always see the landscape as the main character here. You feel small in Eastern Oregon. Small, but free to live large.
Changes in available opportunity for those who helped shape the American West and thrived in the 1800’s and well into this century are the seed of the crisis in Harney County that is all over the news today, and that is the impetus for my trip here this time. Initially, I wanted to come here to provide a counter presence to those who are occupying the Mahleur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWF). The environmental activist in me wanted to help stop the destruction and paving of roads at the refuge. I believe their actions are illegal, and I hoped that more people onsite would up the ante and force the the FBI to step in and take action to remove Ammon Bundy and his buddies. I sat on that impulse, though, and gave it some thought. Instead I decided to come here to learn. I loaded my Subaru Forester with supplies, set it up for sleeping and camping and took off around 3:00 yesterday.
The drive provided ample opportunity to think as I spent 6 hours on the road, stretching my eyes across the big vistas leading to the snow covered Central Cascades, and devouring the stunning beauty of Central and Eastern Oregon. I got a late start, so part of the drive was illuminated by a nearly full moon, shrouded intermittently with clouds and occasionally some lower level fog.
The temperatures dropped down to around 37º around the time I got into Harney County, and the extra snow in the area helped brighten my surroundings. I couldn’t have picked a better day to travel, really. Still, getting to the area so late, I didn’t want to drive right up to headquarters at MNWR in the dark, so I checked the internet for places to camp nearby, and found Crystal Crane Hot Springs, about 30 miles from the MNWF Headquarters, a place I recalled from past trips out this way, and decided that would be my first camping spot.
I stopped in Burns, the Harney County Seat, to get gas and shop for other needed supplies. It was interesting talking to the gas station attendant and the checker at the Burns Thriftway. The young man pumping my gas told me that there has been a slight increase in business, but he was pretty reticent to talk about the events happening in his home town which are making the national news. He did say a lot of FBI was in town, and that they weren’t friendly. I asked him to explain how so, and he said they were just very business-like and made him feel scrutinized. There were a few men in cowboy hats getting their big pick-up trucks filled up at the same time, and they all turned to listen to our conversation. Their expressions were inscrutable, and I felt oddly uncomfortable, so I didn’t ask the young men any other questions.
My conversation with the Thriftway checker was more substantial. She seemed glad to share her perspective, especially after determining there was nobody nearby listening in. She told me that she and her husband are neither ranchers or government workers, but have lived in the Burns area for 20 years. Her husband works for Ford Motor Company. She would like the Bundy group to leave, and soon, but not because of the lawlessness, as much as because of what their actions have done to her community. She said friends of 30-40 years were screaming obscenities at each other in public, and others weren’t even on speaking terms anymore. She described a heartbreaking rift in the local community over the issues that have come out into the open since the Bundy group has arrived and taken over the MNWF. She’s sick of the constant bickering and the tension in the air, but she blames the locals more than the outsiders, claiming they have a choice in how they respond to this situation, and she wishes people would remember their manners and honor the “ties that bind” them together as a community.
I was reminded of the shaky video I came across recently of a meeting in the Burns High School gym, which was posted by ultra-conservative independent media source, the Pete Santilli Show. The show proclaims itself, “the alternative to the alternative media.” Most people at that meeting spoke up to ask Ammon Bundy and his men to “go home,” whether they appreciated any of the information the group has provided or not. They just want their community back. The few who support the presence of the outside group at the refuge were angry about the backlash they have received for opening their businesses to the group, and voicing support for their ideas. A fair number of people just want the focus back on getting local ranchers, the Hammonds, out of prison and back home. One woman was nearly in tears as she begged the question, directed at the sheriff and local authorities, “Have you even called Susan Hammond (wife of rancher Dwight Hammond.)?” She was visibly upset about Susan Hammond, an older woman, out at their ranch trying to manage on her own, because of her husband and son being sent back to finish a mandatory minimum sentence for Arson.
In truth, this could be what’s at the heart of it all. Mandatory minimum sentences sometimes create nonsensical and unfair sentencing that can be easily seen as government overreach. The Bundy group are on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to opposing federal government overreach. They came here with an agenda, because they thought they could take advantage of the community’s outrage over the Hammonds. My impression is that this community is torn apart because they have highly differing views about how to go about righting the wrongs they feel the Hammonds have experienced, especially after outsiders have come in and stirred things up with their own agenda.
A telling example of how this divide is negatively affecting individuals in the community is the story my host here at Crystal Crane Hot Springs resort told me this morning when she found me typing away in her lobby. Denice Kryger and her husband, Dan, are the proprietors of the Crystal Crane Hot Springs resort. Denice explained that when a local rancher who, like her, is heavily involved in fire prevention in the area recently asked to use the resort common space for a meeting, she accommodated him, thinking it was a fire meeting with local ranchers attending. Little did she know that he planned to provide a forum for Bundy and his crew to share their plans and recruit more local ranchers to support their goals. The backlash against her business and against her personally has been harsh, prompting bad reviews from birders and environmentalists on Trip Advisor and tension and ugly looks when she goes into Burns to shop and bank. There are many in the local community who are angry at the Krygers, and are boycotting their business. Denice said they considered not allowing the meeting to continue once they realized what it was about, but they feared alienating local ranchers, and felt that open dialogue, in which all points of view are considered is the “American way.” Instead she opted to update the blog on her website with a post that expresses their neutrality about the issues. She is being forced to walk a difficult and very thin line in a community which is stressed out.
Despite my commitment to managed protected public lands, I’m not certain how to sort our Western land management issues or who should have access to other public lands and for what uses, or how the FBI should handle the current occupation of the Mahlheur National Wildlife Refuge. The divide between those who support protected public lands and those who don’t is as vast as the landscapes out here in Eastern Oregon, and there are as many special interests as there are bird species stopping in at the refuge each year. I don’t know all of the reasons people are showing up here to support Ammon Bundy’s group, but I am certain this community won’t be able to heal themselves and come together to work on their divisions until the outsiders are gone.