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Did wildlife refuge standoff hurt Oregon's image? Maybe just a little

COURTESY OF U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE - Hundreds of birders are expected next month at the nearly sold-out Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, hosted by the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns. A 41-day seige of the refuge by militants this year may have given Oregon's image a slight black eye, according to people who wrote to Gov. Kate Brown.Varick Olson likes Oregon and planned to visit the state this summer with his wife on their way to Northern California.

Now the Roseville, Minn., resident says a 41-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge forced him to change plans. He and his wife are not coming to Oregon. They’re concerned about lurking armed militants.

“Our major concern is that if we visit and another group decides to have an armed takeover of a park or refuge we are visiting the state will do nothing to provide for our safety,” says Olson, who has visited Southern Oregon and hiked and biked in rural parts of the state. “We do not want to be a dead visitor when one of these armed individuals decides to start shooting.”

Olson isn’t alone. While about two dozen armed militants were making themselves at home on the refuge compound 30 miles south of Burns in Harney County, nearly 100 people sent emails and letters to Gov. Kate Brown and to Travel Oregon with similar messages. Their No. 1 issue: Oregon didn’t seem safe with militants hanging around.

“Oregon can’t seem to get their Christians under control,” says Ella Havard Fitzbag of Whitewright, Texas, who considered visiting the state in June with her sister, a Buddhist nun, “but her head is shaved and she wears robes. It would not be a good idea to stir them up and to endanger our lives.”

The standoff with armed militants who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Jan. 2 may have given Oregon’s national image a black eye. Or, it gave the state just a slight bruise that tourism officials hope will heal quickly.

“While the events in Harney County were unfortunate, I don't think it tarnished Oregon’s image,” says Linea Gagliano, director of global communications for Travel Oregon and the state’s Tourism Commission. “People were acutely aware that the original militia was comprised of members who were not from Oregon. We only received a very small number of inquiries regarding safety and travel to Oregon (less than 10). What's more, people understood that the federal government was the lead agency on this and that Oregon had to follow their lead about how to enforce the law with this particular group.”

Gagliano says the standoff didn’t do much to hurt the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, April 8 to 10 at the refuge. Support for the refuge overflowed into the festival this year, with “much more robust” ticket sales, leaving only a few open spots in packed events and tours, she says.

“While this was an incredibly unfortunate incident, it did show the resilience and unity of the community of Harney County,” Gagliano says.

Hundreds of birders are expected to show up at the festival for refuge tours and lectures. The festival is one of the events that pumps about $11.9 million into Harney County’s economy each year, according to a 2015 state report on tourism’s economic impact.

It also didn’t do lasting damage to the nonprofit Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which raised nearly $130,000 and more than tripled its membership during the standoff. The group’s executive director, who lives at the refuge compound year-round, was only able to return home a few weeks ago after the FBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finished gathering evidence at the refuge.

Brown’s frustration

Most of those involved in the standoff are in custody, awaiting trial on a half-dozen federal charges, including using threats and intimidation to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs, and damaging cultural sites and artifacts sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe.

Leaders of the standoff were arrested Jan. 26 in the late afternoon as they traveled on Highway 395 about 20 miles north of Burns, heading to a community meeting in John Day. During the traffic stop, 54-year-old Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot by Oregon State Police troopers when he refused to surrender and reached for a 9mm handgun in his jacket. He was the only fatality in the standoff.

An investigation by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office found the shooting was justified.

Hours after the arrests, many of the armed militants holed up at the refuge dropped everything — including their weapons — and fled the compound ahead of an expected assault by law enforcement officers. The assault never came.

The standoff officially ended on the morning of Feb. 11, when the last four holdouts camped on a loop road near the compound surrendered one by one after a tense night of negotiations with FBI officials, aided by Nevada legislator Michelle Fiore and the Rev. Franklin Graham.

During the occupation, leaders of the group they called Citizens for Constitutional Freedom attended two community meetings in Burns and used social media nearly every day to promote their cause.

As the standoff dragged on, Gov. Brown expressed frustration and asked federal officials to step in. FBI officials’ patience paid off with the arrests of Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy, Ryan Payne and others who led the protest and occupation.

Within a day after the arrests, state and federal law enforcement officers set up roadblocks near the refuge, taking many of the occupiers into custody as they tried to leave.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ROB KERR - Armed militants who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2 scared off some people who might have visited Oregon. In emails to the state, some people said they didn't think Oregon was safe to visit because of the militants.

‘Damage is irreparable

As an intense national media spotlight focused on the refuge takeover, Oregon’s $10.3 billion tourism industry wilted in some folks’ eyes. A stack of emails sent to the governor’s office in January and February demanded that Brown take action to end the occupation. In some cases, people suggested Brown shut off power to the refuge or use the Oregon National Guard to force the militants out.

Nearly half the emails came from outside the state. People from Texas, Arizona, California, Illinois, Washington and Idaho warned that they wouldn’t feel safe visiting Oregon because of the refuge standoff.

“This frightens me as a teacher, father and a citizen,” wrote Eric Ramberg of Roswell, N.M., in mid-January. “The door is now open for other armed militants with dubious motives to take whatever they want.

“My wife and I will be relocating soon, and Oregon used to be on our list of places to move, but after this incident, we no longer can consider Oregon a safe place.”

State tourism officials countered that the standoff was “contained within the wildlife refuge” that was more than 100 miles from the nearest major highway (Interstate 84).

“To those who were concerned that Oregon wasn’t doing enough to keep the public safe, we assured them the governor and her team were on it and that this was a federal issue,” Gagliano says. “Oregon had to let the FBI take the lead, knowing that the safety of the citizens and visitors of Harney County was the utmost priority.”

Since the standoff ended, some people have praised law enforcement’s response. Pat Connolly of Rio Linda, Calif., who says he is a “loyal supporter” of the refuge, was happy that the “weekend warriors” were locked up. “They put the residents, their families and children through a living hell for far too long,” Connolly says.

But Texas’ Fitzbag says it might take a lot of effort for the state to erase the image of armed militants strutting around the refuge, because “the damage is irreparable.”

“What should Mississippi do to improve its image after the integration issues in the 1960s, that was some 55 years ago?” she says. “People from the North, West and East have not forgotten, and they make sure their kids know about it.”

Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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