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Back to Harney County, year after refuge takeover


A year ago Monday, Ammon Bundy and his followers occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. We went back to Burns one year later to hear from the community.

It was another cold day in the town of Burns, not unlike Jan. 2, 2016, when a protest turned occupation turned standoff divided the community.

A year later, members of the Burns community told us, “It broke up the town,” “people are still divided” and “there’s various theories and feelings on it, but it still splits the community.”

The 41-day standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge thrust the rural Eastern Oregon county into the media spotlight, a spotlight they are still trying to dim.

“You know what? I don’t want an outside perspective that this is a bad place or an unsafe place,” said Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, who retired Saturday night.

“This was a bunch of outside people — no offense, but you’re outside people, coming in asking us how we’re doing, and what we’re doing and where we’re going,” he said.

“We’re fine, and I don’t want the rest of the world to think this is a bad place,” Grasty added.

After the last four occupiers were taken into custody, the FBI packed up and the news crews moved on, leaving Burns under a lingering shadow. But the residents tried not to let that interfere with everyday life.

“We’ve got great restaurants, good community, good churches,” Grasty said. “We’re going about business like we always have, like nothing happened last year.”

Although normal life has resumed, to a large degree, some residents still see remnants of split opinions. But for now, the refuge and town that had been overtaken by not just occupiers, but by law enforcement and media, is silent, under new-fallen snow.

The refuge headquarters remains closed, gate padlocked, with extra security in view on the first anniversary of the takeover.

“We just ignore it,” Grasty said. “I mean, look out there. There’s nothing on this big landscape that says something happened here on Jan. 2 2016. And we’re just going to keep telling that story.”

They are unsure when the refuge headquarters will reopen, but for now, it’s a waiting game.

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