BURNS, Oregon — Driving through town, you don’t get the sense that a group of gun-toting extremists, now calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms, have taken over a federal wildlife refuge 30 miles down the road.
It’s a quiet town in the middle of the Oregon desert where locals seem unaffected by the sudden presence of national news media and FBI personnel. Aside from one set of signs on the highway going into Burns saying “No Bundy Caliphate in Harney County,” it appears to be business as usual.
An elderly man running the Elkhorn Club and Linda’s Thai Room downtown feigned little interest in the militia occupation, but seemed happy to have three tables for customers—all journalists.
Back at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a few families came to see what all the commotion was truly about.
Before a press conference by protesters started, a Chevy Suburban pulled into the press area. Two families brought their eight kids to the occupation site to see why their schools had been shut down for “safety” reasons.
“We’re just trying to find out what’s happening,” one of the moms said as her kids looked around at the reporters. “I do feel like it’s starting to divide the community. We have a lot of really good friends that feel threatened. They’ve taken their families out of our community, they’ve left town, and I don’t understand.”
The woman, who did not give her name, elaborated that her friends and others in the community who have relations to local law enforcement or who work for the government have received threatening calls and feel like they’re being followed.
“They feel threatened by somebody, but that’s what we don’t know. Is it part of this group? Is it somebody who claims to be part of this group?”
Upon arriving at the wildlife refuge, the parents said they don’t feel that the group presents any dangers to the community, but they don’t know whether they support their agenda or not.
Another group of ranchers and cowboys from the surrounding area came with a similar fascination. One of the men who lived down the road said the whole thing seems “horrible” and “intrusive” on the part of the militia.
Ammon Bundy, the group’s dour leader, spouted the usual doomsday rhetoric about the government infringing on the rights of good people, while some of those locals stood in the background and listened.
“Because we have allowed our federal government to step outside the bounds of the constitution, they have come down upon the people and they are now prosecuting them directly,” Bundy said, referencing the Hammond ranchers who were sent back to prison for not serving enough time after being found guilty of setting fire to federal land next to their property.
Tune out Bundy’s extreme rhetoric and listen to the locals, you’ll find they share his distrust of the federal government but not his methods.
“Most folks agree with the sentiment that the government has far exceeded their boundaries, and we’d love to see a bunch of that rolled back,” said a local cowboy named Pat. “But I haven’t decided one way or another on the Bundy’s. That’s why we’re here right now. I do like though, that they’ve brought this conversation to the forefront. That’s one positive thing.”
Duane Freilino, a hunting guide from nearby Crane, said that he has to deal with local government agencies a lot with land-use permits and hunting rights.
“A lot of the times, I don’t agree with them,” said Freilino. “I wish they would do things differently, but that’s where you have meetings and try and change the laws.”