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After Armed Occupation, Tensions Linger Near Oregon Wildlife Refuge


In Eastern Oregon, the 41-day occupation of a wildlife refuge is over, but surrounding Harney County is still a tense place. Many people there work for the federal government. Others sympathized with the militants. In some cases, friends and family members who took different sides still aren't speaking to one another. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Peacher reports.

TARA MCLAIN: Good job, boys.


AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Harney County resident Tara McLain cheers for her 10-year-old son at a basketball game.

MCLAIN: I don't have constant fear.

PEACHER: That's a big difference from how McLain felt just a few weeks ago. As a Bureau of Land Management employee, McLain's life was turned upside down during the occupation. Some government employees were harassed by out-of-town militants, and she worried her family could be also be targeted. She had to work from home. On a few occasions, her husband noticed strange footprints and vehicle tracks in fresh snow outside their house. McLain told her kids they couldn't be home alone anymore, including her teenage daughter.

MCLAIN: That was hard. She was, like, why do I have to go to the store with you?

PEACHER: And the occupation was on her entire family's mind all the time.

MCLAIN: We had to make a rule in January that we couldn't talk about it at the table anymore.

PEACHER: But McLain says she also feels good about how her neighbors rallied around her.

MCLAIN: I feel more supported now by my community.

PEACHER: But things are not exactly back to normal. At the BLM office where McLain works, there's now fencing around the building. On the front doors of the Harney County Courthouse, a new sign asks visitors to leave any guns in their vehicles. Some in Burns don't want things to go back to the status quo.

Rancher Rodney Johnson and his 10-year-old son Benjamin are out feeding their cattle. Their tractor heads toward a cow and her newborn calf. Benjamin is curious about whether it's a boy or a girl.

BENJAMIN JOHNSON: Is it a heifer?

PEACHER: Johnson jumps off the tractor and wrangles the squirming black calf. He tags it and lets it go.



R. JOHNSON: Well, you kind of have to catch them quick 'cause they can be kind of hard to catch.

PEACHER: For the Johnson family, tagging a newborn is life as usual on their small ranch.

R. JOHNSON: Life hasn't been too much different other than the conflict in town with the community.

PEACHER: During the occupation, Johnson found himself on the opposite side of some friends. He and his wife visited and spoke with the militants at the refuge.

R. JOHNSON: Their tactics were illegal and wrong, but I fully support their message.

PEACHER: The Johnsons are among some in Harney County who still want to take action to curb what they see as government overreach, like some federal policies on grazing. Rodney Johnson's wife, Debbie, is helping organize local meetings to build on the momentum created by the occupiers.

DEBBIE JOHNSON: My goal at this point is taking this ball that we've got and keeping it going and making it bigger.

PEACHER: Debbie Johnson had heated disagreements with friends over the occupation.

D. JOHNSON: It may be a little bit calmer. People are relieved that there's fewer guns in town. But as far as the emotional injury that's occurred, it's still very obvious.

PEACHER: She hopes to be able to mend friendships. But for now, her focus is on spending time with family and getting ready for spring.

D. JOHNSON: We're not going to name him Starbucks - not Starbucks, Starbuck.

PEACHER: Today, that means deciding on a name for the newborn calf.


BENJAMIN: How about Sausage?

PEACHER: For NPR News, I'm Amanda Peacher in Harney County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.

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