Residents Grow Restless As Armed Occupation In Oregon Drags On
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For nearly three weeks now, armed militants have occupied a wildlife refuge in Southeast Oregon. They want federal lands to be turned over to county or state managers. Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting has been covering this story since it began, and she joins us from the nearby town of Burns. And Amanda, what's the latest? We know there was a community meeting last night to discuss this. What happened?
AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Well, so these are weekly meetings held in the local high school gym. They allow residents and county leaders to speak, give updates and share their perspectives on the occupation. And the meeting actually became quite tense about 30 minutes in when Ammon Bundy, the leader of the occupation, showed up. He just kind of sat in the background along with fellow militants and listened.
Now, only Hearney County residents were allowed to speak, so we never heard from Ammon. But many of the local residents addressed their comments directly to him and even began chanting go home at one point.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Go home. Go home. Go home. Go home.
PEACHER: So Bundy's presence and that of the other militants in the room definitely increased the tension in that high school gym.
SIEGEL: Well, judging from the go-home chants, it sounds like locals are tired of the situation and just want it to end. Is that accurate?
PEACHER: That is absolutely accurate. They are exhausted, and this is dividing the community in ways that I've never seen before. Some people support the move for local control. Others are just fine with federal control of local public lands. At the community meeting last night, there were tears. There were shouts. Family members who are on opposite sides, in some cases, are not talking to each other any longer. Now Hearney County leaders are saying that they want to bring the community back together, but it does feel like it's becoming more and more divided here.
SIEGEL: Amanda, what does Ammon Bundy actually want, or what does he say he wants?
PEACHER: Well, the occupiers have held steady in their goal of turning federal land in Hearney County to local ownership, be it private parties or to county government. On Monday night, Bundy and a few of the other occupation spokespeople tried to convince area ranchers that they should tear up their contracts with federal land agencies and stop paying federal grazing fees. They said that they would protect any land user who chose to do so and gave a direct warning to federal agents that they would provide armed physical protection for any ranchers who decide to stop paying their federal fees.
So they also got a little bit more specific the next day about their goals regarding the local timber economy. They say they want to open up the federal forests for logging of downed timber here and reopen the local saw mill which has been closed for quite some time.
SIEGEL: The Bundys have said that they hope to start a movement against federal ownership of public lands. Are their ideas gaining traction anywhere else?
PEACHER: Well, the militants say that their ideas are gaining some traction. Last week, one of the spokespersons, LaVoy Finicum, traveled to Southern Utah. He went there freely from the occupied wildlife refuge and back. He said he was meeting with supporters who also want to take back federal lands or what they say would be taking back federal lands. We don't know specifically which county or who those supporters are, but he says that they do have a movement growing there.
I will say that Bundy's call for new militants to come to Oregon has, in some sense, worked. I see new faces at the refuge every day. People do seem to be also leaving every day, for what that's worth, but I've met new people from Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, California who have, in a sense, answered Bundy's call.
SIEGEL: OK. That's reporter Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Burns, Ore. Amanda, thanks.
PEACHER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.