Bundys did damage in Burns as well as at refuge, UO prof says

On a chilly January night earlier this year, hundreds of residents of Harney County congregated in the high school gym in Burns to discuss the heavily armed militia that had been a visible presence in their town for nearly three months — driving trucks through the streets with confederate flags and firearms waving out the windows, approaching mothers and children in the grocery store, and shadowing federal employees.

UO geography professor Peter Walker, who is writing a book about the militia’s effect on Burns, sat among town residents as members of the group marched into the gymnasium, their guns in plain sight. Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders, silently took a seat in the bleachers as his men spread to every corner of the gymnasium.

“I realized they were tactically positioning themselves for a firefight,” Walker said.

Steve Grasty, the Harney County judge, halted the meeting he was presiding over and walked up to Bundy.

“You have caused too much suffering in this community,” Grasty said. “You need to go home.”

Community members rose to their feet and began to echo Grasty’s demand.

“Go home. Go home. Go home,” people chanted in unison.

“It was one of the greatest displays of courage I’ve witnessed,” Walker said. “They were surrounded by heavily armed militiamen — some with criminal records, many who had clearly stated their willingness to die for their cause, and there was so much uncertainty about what they might do — yet the residents still stood up and told them to leave.”

But despite the great display of courage, the militia did not go home. They continued their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest federal “overreach” of land ownership, until the standoff ended with dozens of arrests and the death of one occupier.

The Bundy brothers and 19 other members of their militia are currently on trial in a federal court in Portland on conspiracy charges, but Walker believes some of their most damaging acts will never get scrutinized by a judge or jury. While law enforcement and the media remain focused on the militia’s 41-day occupation of federal property, Walker is investigating what he calls the occupation of Harney County and its aftermath.

“This community was taken hostage for over three months,” Walker said as he outlined the thousands of death threats that were made, the tires that were slashed and the armed militiamen who started walking around the town in camouflage as early as October of last year. “They weren’t hiding from anything. It was purely for intimidation.”

Walker, who specializes in the politics of land, dropped everything when he heard what was happening in the sleepy town of Burns. He was familiar with Ammon and Ryan’s father, Cliven Bundy, who spearheaded a 2014 armed standoff with the federal government over grazing fees on federal land in Nevada, and sensed the Bundy brothers were trying to start something monumental.  
“Their takeaway from their father’s standoff in Nevada was that if you point guns at the federal government, the government will back off,” Walker said.

But it wasn’t just the federal government that was staring at the barrel of the milita’s guns; it was the community of Harney County. So for months, he drove hundreds of miles from Eugene to Harney County, where he frequented the Silver Spur Motel, staying in a room tucked between many of the militia members — and their guns — so he could witness the events unfold and the town’s reaction as the occupation took place.

The occupation of the wildlife refuge ended months ago, but Walker’s trips to Burns are far from complete.

“The psychological legacy isn’t over,” he said. “The entire county is suffering something like PTSD.”

Walker’s book will examine how community residents respond to the trauma. Will the months of collective tension and intimidation further unite the community? Or will ongoing division, provocation and fear destabilize it?

His early observations, which include the evening at the high school gymnasium, suggest that their shared experience has led to an increased amount of trust that will likely empower them to remain a cohesive community.  

In Walker’s opinion, one of the main reasons the Bundys failed to have the massive impact they desired — which, he speculates, was to trigger a nationwide revolution against the federal government — is due to Harney County’s impressive track record of working together on potentially divisive issues. He can highlight many instances where the town’s solutions to the issues stand in direct opposition to the Bundys’ cause.  

“Harney County is the poster child of collaboration between land users and the federal government,” Walker said. “They have spent decades addressing the conflicting interests that can arise over land use and management and have identified innovative solutions for the very issues the Bundys protest.”

Instead of answering the Bundys’ call to arms, local ranchers almost unanimously told them they have no irresolvable issues with the federal government, Walker said. They’ve spent decades working toward mutually agreeable ways to manage and use the land.

As one rancher said, “Collaboration is what inoculated us from the Bundy virus.”

Walker believes the Harney County ranchers were also unimpressed by outsiders trying to interfere with local politics, especially considering the Bundy brothers are not actually ranchers or loggers. Ammon Bundy owns a truck repair company and Ryan Bundy is a building contractor.

One of the biggest challenges for the community as it attempts to rebuild itself and move on is a small group that did sympathize with the Bundys: the Committee of Safety, a term borrowed from the American Revolution. The group is still handing out pocket Constitutions and advocating an extreme translation that includes the federal government’s lack of rights to the nation’s land.

“It’s going to be a long and hard process of healing,” said Walker, who plans to be there for the indefinite future as the community copes with both continued provocation and the trauma from months of occupation. “But I suspect Harney County will emerge stronger.”

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications