A little over a month ago, armed ranchers rolled into a small Oregon town of Burns and began occupying the Malheur National Wildlife preserve. Initial coverage of the illegal occupation was feverish, but since then most of the media has moved on to newer, flashier items. In Oregon, however, the occupation is still dragging on.
Eleven people, including leader Ammon Bundy, are now in custody. Four people remain entrenched at the refuge and are refusing to leave until they are promised by the FBI negotiator that they will not be prosecuted.
The legal battle
The occupiers that have been arrested are being charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers — essentially, that through threats and intimidation (for example, their armed occupation of a federal workplace), they have prevented federal employees from doing their jobs.
Ammon Bundy’s attorneys have set up a crowdfunding site to cover his legal fees. Their goal is $100,000 by February 27. The total is currently at a little over $13,000.
Although still incarcerated, Bundy sought release with a GPS ankle bracelet until his trial. U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman ordered Friday that he and five of the other militiamen remain in custody, saying “I’m worried about him occupying another government building.” It seems that at least until the occupation he started is over, Ammon Bundy is still considered a threat.
Bundy was due to appear in court yesterday to challenge the judge’s order, but his attorneys withdrew the challenge moments before, saying that they needed to gather “further evidence of his statements encouraging a peaceful protest and civil disobedience.”
Despite starting the armed occupation, after his original court appearance, Bundy issued a video and subsequent statements through his lawyer calling for the remaining occupiers to stand down.
Father vs. son
Despite the incarcerated Bundy’s change of heart, the four people who are still occupying the refuge now have the blessing of another Bundy: Ammon’s father, Cliven, himself the leader of a different standoff in 2014 over grazing rights.
Cliven Bundy has attempted an armchair coup, saying in an interview with the Guardian that now he’s “taking control of things.” He told the remaining occupiers, who are refusing to leave the refuge without a guarantee of non-arrest and who say they are willing to die, to continue their takeover of the refuge.
Cliven was clear that he speaks for himself, not for Ammon — but he added that he has doubts that Ammon was sincere in his wish for the remaining occupiers to leave.
Ammon, on the other hand, released a statement yesterday through his lawyers saying that he has not been able to speak to his father due to the restrictions of his confinement. He reiterated that the four remaining occupiers (which he called protesters) should go home to preserve their lives.
Ironically, he added: “This will allow the FBI and OSP to also go home and end their armed occupation of Burns and Harney County.”
The local effect of the occupation
Although Bundy seems to be confused about who the armed occupiers are, he does seems to grasp some of the strain he’s put on Harney County, where protests exploded outside the courthouse on Monday.
Protesters sympathetic to the occupation co-opted the cry of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” from the Black Lives Matter movement, referring to the death of occupier LaVoy Finicum at a traffic stop last week. A video released by the authorities shows Finicum appearing to reach towards his side — where he had a loaded gun according to local law enforcement– when he was shot.
Across the street, local residents formed a counter-protest. They demanded that the outsiders go home, and show respect for their locally elected officials. As tensions rose, a police officer came to separate the two groups.
— Lincoln Graves (@LincolnGraves) February 1, 2016
The protest was only the most recent outburst of tension in the town, which has been divided by the conflict. This division has played out in businesses, town halls, and local schools — where the armed occupation is making students focus their worries on guns and violence, rather than college and homework.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Harney County Superintendent Marilyn McBride said of the occupation’s effect on the school district.
Aside from the local stress and tension, one of the biggest effects of the occupation is its expense to the local community. More detailed financial information has surfaced in the past few weeks, so we can refine our original estimate.
For schools, Superintendent McBride estimates that the district is out $247,500 — $179,500 for the week that they were closed, and since then, $4,000 a day for extra mental health counselors and security personnel. This cost has risen to $68,000 thus far.
Extra security and law enforcement was also brought in for the town. Originally, Harney county judge Steve Grasty estimated that security and closed schools and offices came to $70,0000 per day — almost $500,000 per week. Oregon Governor Kate Brown has a more conservative estimate for just law enforcement, but says that costs are still $100,000 per week to local and state agencies, bringing the total to over $400,000.
In addition to the security costs, there’s the cost of the Bureau of Land Management office, which remains closed, with its employees on paid leave. That means the government is shelling out $117,000 per week for no return in labor. Excluding federal holidays, the total in lost government work thus far is up to $491,400.
Finally, there’s the issue of lost tourism. Contrary to the ranchers’ claims, federal lands can be a huge economic boon to local communities. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a huge draw for recreational visitors, who spend $15 million a year in the local community. Averaged evenly, that’s $40,000 per day, though the exact number will shift season to season and be lower in the winter; the real risk is if the occupation stretches into the spring or recovery from it continues to impede preserve.
Malheur is especially popular with birders. Throughout the winter, the refuge is a concentration point for many species of raptors. Migrations are a huge draw — and in February, ducks, geese, swans, and sandhill cranes begin to arrive, and the birders with them.
However, according to local reporting, some local businesses have seen a rise in business, due to the concentration of law officers and reporters in the area. Although this uptick is a benefit for some in the local economy, the birders and other wintertime outdoor recreators, nonetheless, will be staying away while the refuge remains closed — and due to newly charged political climate, some are threatening to stay away forever.
Added up, the above costs to schools, in law enforcement, and in government work come to $1,138,900. A loss in recreational tourism could add to that, as will the necessary repair work each day the occupation continues.
Although the occupation has shrunk in size, it’s still going on — which means for Harney County, so is the headache and the expense.