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Op-Ed

Malheur

August 4, 2021

The setting for a standoff, years later. Birds against cows.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

“There are 14 cows for every person in Harney County,” Evan tells me as we wait for a large iced coffee with only two shots — flavored water, basically — at a local coffee stand in Burns, Oregon.

There is nobody behind us at the drive-through so the 17-year-old manning one side of the shack is fine to talk. I had wanted to come up to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge because I had read so much about the region during our coverage of the standoff between right-wing militias and the federal government years ago. And our Oregon correspondent said she returned to the region on her vacation, telling me it must be pretty special.

A lonely barn stands in the middle of green grass and sagebrush in Harney County, Oregon, near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (Courthouse News photo / Bill Girdner)

But in driving to the visitor center at the National Wildlife Refuge, I was struck by how apparently unspecial it was. Flat, high desert. It’s true that the couple ponds by the visitor center held a variety of birds and a lookout nearby showed a view of ponds and waterways among the brush that I could imagine as a bird paradise. Thousands of cranes take over in early spring, I was told here, as they fly south to the Central Valley.

But right now, in early summer, there were just a few ducks.

So I was asking Evan what the big deal was all about. And he was explaining it to me. I had to understand, he said, that this was an agricultural county. So there is a great interest in using the land — most of the county is owned by the BLM — for farming.

A long time ago, I wrote profiles of judges for the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, a small legal paper with offices next to the L.A. Times. One of my regular questions to the jurists was what their parents did, and the answers were often revealing in showing the eventual direction of the judge I was interviewing.

So I asked Evan about his parents. He explained that his mother was a nurse and his step-mother was a local artist. Slow on the uptake, I asked, “How about your father?” He simply shook his head.

He said he was 13 years old when the standoff occurred. But I was in luck, he added quickly, because his class at Crane High School had just studied the matter. And he lived right across from the only airport in the region, so, as a teenager, he had a bird’s eye view as the FBI set up its field headquarters next to the airport.

He said his school pulled from the entire region and had only 77 students. The young people working in the coffee stands are usually students so I ask about their plans. And Evan, explaining that he had “a lot brain power,” planned to pursue psychiatric medicine at a school around Reno, where most of the young people from the area head for college.

At the local Subway, getting sandwiches for later in the day, I asked the young, bespectacled cashier about the origin of the standoff — my reporting method on vacation — and he explained that a local farmer had set fire to federal land to clear it for grazing and been prosecuted for it, a narrative that was entirely accurate.

Rolls of hay to feed the 100,000 head of cattle in Harney County, Oregon. (Courthouse News photo / Bill Girdner)

At the refuge itself, I found that the reception center was closed with a sign saying it was due to Covid. I found this odd because, just a couple days earlier, the reception center in Death Valley had been well staffed.

But the gift shop next door to the reception center was open and doing a brisk business. Run by volunteers from the local birdwatchers group, the store sold caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs, maps and the goofy stuff that is fun to pick up on a road trip, sometimes put on a shelf in the kitchen, sometimes not. So I asked the woman taking my payment for a light-green Malheur cap why the reception center operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was closed.

“Write to your congressman,” she said. The bespectacled man with pocket binoculars standing next to the main pond here turned out to be her husband. A kind of volunteer guide, he explained all the different kinds of birds on the pond. But his wife’s answer made me think the closure was political, a symbolic stand, perhaps, by the local congressman, trading his budget vote to keep the reception center shuttered, a chit for his farmer constituents. That was only a wild guess.

Nevertheless, would be an interesting news story. The county of 7,000 souls (and nearly 100,000 cattle) in an area of 12,000 square miles is heavily Republican, voting 70% for John McCain in 2008.

On my way out of town, I went by a sign pointing to the town of Crane so I thought I would take a few minutes and check out Evan’s hometown.

It was peaceful, that was the main thing. The church where I had the Subway sandwich, standing in the shade, was in good repair. Parking lot recently paved. The houses suggested neither poverty nor affluence. There were plenty of horses and the only person I saw was coming out of the U.S. Post Office which was spartan, all white, a mobile building, looked like, next to tall flagpole topped by the national flag.

We had checked out Harney County, blacktop stretched before us. It was time to see what Idaho was all about.

The tiny U.S. Post Office in Crane, Oregon. (Courthouse News photo / Bill Girdner)

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