BURNS, Ore. (CN) – The citizens of Harney County expressed both support and the desire to kick out self-identified militia members led by the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy from the federal buildings they seized at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote southeastern Oregon.
Local ranchers Nolan and Charmaign Edwards showed up at the refuge headquarters on Wednesday afternoon. Charmaign was born and raised on the Colony ranch outside of nearby Fields, Oregon. Her parents bought it in 1956 and the couple took over operations in 1978.
The couple said they agreed with some of what Bundy has been saying, and wanted to find out more.
Nolan called the jailing of local ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, a “travesty.” The pair reported to prison on Monday to serve the balance of their five-year sentences for starting two fires on their land. A federal judge had ignored a mandatory minimum-sentencing guideline – finding that it “shocked his conscience” – and instead handed three months to Dwight and one year to his son.
The government appealed, and an appeals court found that the minimums applied.
“Dwight’s been hauling our cattle for 30 years,” Nolan Edwards said. “He’s always just been a really good neighbor to us. And this, all over a fire getting away, is just a little ridiculous.”
Charmaign Edwards said the problem stems from an excess of power in the hands of the federal government.
“That’s one thing where I agree with this occupation here – I’m not agreeing with the way they’ve done it, but they’ve brought it all out in the open and it needs to be discussed and it needs to be resolved and it needs to get back to the people so they have more voice in managing their ranches and their property,” she said. “Because the next thing after that is gonna be our water. They’re already after that too. You don’t have no water, you can’t live here.”
Ammon Bundy told press the Hammonds’ situation was “a constitutional crisis.”
“Any time you have a family that has been abused the way the Hammonds and you have a community that has been abused the way they’ve been abused and ends up in prison, ends up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in their defense, they have to pay fines, they were forced to sign a right of first refusal over to the Bureau of Land Management on their ranch, and also they’re under restrictions where they cannot purchase or sell anything over $500 without permission from the U.S. government – I would say yes, that is a constitutional crisis,” Bundy said. “Absolutely. And the sheriff needs to be protecting those people, not collaborating. His oath of office is to protect the people from both foreign and domestic threats. Foreign and domestic. “
At least 50 reporters surrounded Bundy, snapping pictures and taking notes.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward held a meeting Wednesday evening, inviting residents to voice their opinions about the occupation. About 500 people packed a hangar at the county fairgrounds.
Ward opened the meeting by asking for a show of hands of those who wanted Bundy and his group to leave. Almost every hand shot up.
“I am here to ask these folks out at the refuge to leave and let us get back to our lives,” Ward said. “We’re going to work on the solutions to the problems that we face here in Harney County amongst ourselves.”
Local rancher Rodney Johnson told the crowd he wanted Bundy out.
“I can’t say I don’t appreciate what they done, getting the ball rolling,” Johnson said. “But they need to go and let us finish it. I will go down there with anybody who wants to and let them know that they done their job and we can take it from here.”
Burns restaurant owner Gary Hanford said the town should focus on its own needs, not on Bundy.
“When they came for the loggers, I didn’t say nothing because I wasn’t a logger,” Hanford said. “We need to show up for our town. That’s why I’m here. We need to be thinking about what our problems are. Not ‘let’s go run the Bundys out.’ The law officers we have here are totally competent to deal with that.”
“I was at the rally and that was awesome. But what Bundy’s doing – that ain’t right,” he added. “That’s not the answer. At some point in this world we may have to throw the tea in the sea. But it’s not yet.”
Local farmer Mitch Singer agreed that Bundy’s actions had a positive effect for Harney County.
“Whether you agree or disagree with Bundy’s message, he has given Harney County our biggest and best platform to get our message out,” Singer said. “People are talking about our local land-use issues, we are working to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list and it would be great to log our forests instead of letting the beetles kill them and fire burn them up.”
Bundy may have given the community a chance to speak out, but Burns resident Matt Hollister said some ranchers were too scared of losing their grazing permits to voice their opinions.
“I know ranchers who would have loved to have gone down and talked to them but they didn’t for one simple reason: they were afraid of the BLM and the repercussions that would happen to them,” Hollister said to applause. “These are pillars in our community. These are big outfits. They’re scared of the BLM. We’re scared of our government. When did that happen?”
Lifelong Burns resident Merlin Rupp said he supported Bundy.
“These people at the refuge, I talked to them and they ain’t hurting a damn thing down there. They brought us all together. They’re waking people up.”
Levi Tyler asked Sheriff Ward to “hit a pause button” before kicking out Bundy and his followers.
“Please, just hit a pause button,” Tyler said. “They’re not threatening us. I personally went down there and introduced myself to them. I have cows next to them, so I have to address it.”
Ward indicated that he was trying to encourage the militia’s peaceful exodus in order to avoid some other less peaceful outcome over which he had no control.
“Levi, I appreciate your stance on that,” Ward said. “I’m not in charge of the investigation down at the refuge. I’m asking them to go home now so that nobody gets hurt.”
Ward thanked sheriffs from around the state that sent deputies to Harney County.
The FBI released a statement on Monday saying it was heading up the law enforcement response to Bundy’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Asked whether he would leave if the citizens of Harney County asked him to go, Bundy said his work at the refuge was not yet finished.
“There is a time to go home,” Bundy said. “We recognize that. We don’t feel it’s quite time yet. We need to make sure the Hammonds are out of prison or are well on their way. We need to make sure there’s some teeth in these land transfers. And also that those who have committed crimes are exposed as well.”
Bundy said his group was there because other methods had proven fruitless.
“There becomes a time when people are ignored to where they are frustrated and they don’t know what to do,” Bundy said. “They see an injustice, but all levels of government are ignoring that. And the prudent methods are not allowed to be productive. And that is when the people have a right to take a hard stand. And that is what we did. That is why you are here and that is why people are listening now.”
“Enough is enough when there is actual action happening,” Bundy said. “And we’ll know when that is.”
Bundy again demanded that the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, an important stop for migratory birds, be handed over to local ownership.
“The land and the resources were never intended to be in federal control and because of this unconstitutional control and titlement at the federal level, there needs to be an unwinding of that and the land titles need to be transferred back to the people,” Bundy said.
The Edwards said they support Bundy’s demand that the wildlife refuge be transferred to local ownership.
“I don’t see why the feds are managing anything,” Charmaign Edwards said. “They don’t own no property. It’s the people’s.”
“See all that?” Nolan Edwards asked, pointing to the vast snow range spreading out in all directions below the refuge headquarters. “All them beautiful meadows should be filled up with cattle.”
The couple didn’t have immediate answers about who should take over ownership of the refuge.
“Probably ought to put it to a vote and see what the people think,” Nolan Edwards said. “Democracy, kinda like. Try that for a change.”
“First thing they need to do is let Dwight and Steve out of jail,” he added. “And then we need to sit down and figure it out.”
“And I think they need to change that law,” Charmaign Edwards said. “It’s too harsh. I don’t think it was ever intended to be used the way they sentenced them and that needs to be clarified.”
“Terrorism, my God,” Nolan Edwards said.
“Yeah, they’re not terrorists,” Charmaign Edwards said. “No more than these people here are terrorists. Just American people who are tired of government, sounds to us like.”
Like the Hammonds, the Edwards have a permit to graze their cattle on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Charmaign Edwards echoed the frustration and sense of helplessness Bundy and other Burns community members had described.
“We’re permitee holders too,” she said. “They make their own laws and it’s scary to speak out because you’re gonna be next. They’re gonna be hammering on you. And we shouldn’t have to live like that. We’ve got to be able to have a voice too. We’re the ones taking care of the land.”
“All ranchers are environmentalists,” she added. “‘Cause you’ve got to take care of the land or it don’t take care of you.”
An hour later, the couple emerged from the buildings occupied by Bundy.
The Edwards said their conversation with Bundy confirmed their support and that they hoped he accomplished his goals.
“They’re just a bunch of good old boys trying to do right,” Nolan Edwards said. “And that’s about perfect.”
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