Sheriffs keep wary eye on tense Harney County standoff

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ROB KERR - Blain Cooper, 36, and fellow protesters stand in the seized Malheur Nation Refuge complex about 30 miles from Burns. The group wants federal land in Harney County turned over to local ranchers.Sheriffs across Oregon are keeping a close watch on Harney County’s standoff with armed militants, concerned that similar protests could spread to other parts of the state.

Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton says that as the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stretched into its third week, Oregon sheriffs are providing deputies to patrol the rural Eastern Oregon county, and are carefully watching the situation unfold, with a cautious eye on possible armed protests elsewhere.

“There’s real concern where this thing could go in the future,” Staton says. “A similar type of protest in Multnomah County could be a problem because people here won’t react the same way they are in Harney County.

“I’m paying real close attention to it. I certainly wouldn’t want anybody like that over here.”

John Bishop, a retired sheriff and now executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association in Salem, says the group is concerned about that possibility as its members focus on helping Harney County.

“It is a consideration that we have talked about,” Bishop says. “Whether it is a reality or not, time will tell. But we just want to be prepared.”

Jessica Campbell, organizing director of the Rural Organizing Project in Scappoose, a group that opposes militias across the state, says sheriffs should be worried that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation could spread. Armed militants holding the refuge complex have called for people across Oregon and the West to join them in the occupation, and hope to “inspire others to take similar action,” Campbell says.

“This is the second time a national mobilization of militia and patriot groups were called into Oregon in the last year,” Campbell says, referring to 2015’s standoff in Josephine County, led by Oregon Oath Keepers, a similar group of armed men who do not recognize federal authority. “Considering that this is the second time that folks from outside of the community and outside of the state came into rural Oregon to exploit a local situation for national attention in the last year, I believe the sheriffs are right to be concerned.”

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton says he and other sheriffs are keeping an eye on the Harney County standoff in case similar protests spread across the state.

The first arrest

Staton’s observations came after he spent two days last week in Central and Eastern Oregon meeting with local officials and talking with residents in Burns and Hines, the two Harney County towns about 30 miles from where two dozen armed militants took control of the wildlife refuge complex Jan. 2.

The militants, who call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, are demanding that refuge land, and other federally owned property in the county, be turned over to local ranchers. They believe the federal government’s ownership of the land is unconstitutional.

They also want the release of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, Harney County ranchers who reported to a federal prison Jan. 4 to serve five-year sentences for illegally burning federal grazing land.

Law enforcement agencies dealing with the standoff have kept a low profile and have not moved against the armed group. The FBI is handling the wildlife refuge standoff because the complex is federal property operated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Harney County officials are handling the law enforcement response across the county with the help of deputies and police officers from Oregon departments.

The first arrest in the standoff came Friday afternoon, Jan. 15, when 62-year-old Kenneth W. Medenbach of Crescent was taken into custody by Oregon State Troopers and charged with driving a stolen U.S. Fish and Wildlife van. Medenbach is a member of the group holed up at the refuge and has a history of defying federal officials. He also was part of the 2015 occupation of Bureau of Land Management property near the southern Oregon town of Galice, in the Sugar Pine Mine standoff.

Multnomah County sent two deputies and a supervisor to help Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward as he deals with the wildlife refuge standoff and tries to provide normal services. (The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has a staff of about 780, with nearly 160 of those assigned to patrols and other duties.) Sheriffs Gary Bettencourt of Gilliam County and Matt English of Hood River County also are in Harney County providing support.

Sheriffs are using local resources to send deputies to Harney County, Staton says, but his agency — and others — might seek federal or state funds to cover the additional costs.

‘Feel the tension

Staton says the standoff has rattled and divided Harney County residents. Many are angry and want the occupying group to leave, with some loudly expressing that during two community meetings. Others support the group and its cause. Many outsiders who support the occupation are staying in Burns.

That tension was evident from the first hours in Burns, Staton says. Residents there are “tired, fed up and frustrated” by the standoff and the outside attention it’s focusing on Harney County, he says.

“When we first got there and drove in, you could feel the tension,” Staton says. “It wasn’t like a normal day. People are scared.”

Sheriff Ward has seen that tension increase in the past couple of months. Militants showed up in early November before taking over the wildlife refuge complex in January. The 42-year-old first-time sheriff says he is concerned for his community’s future, mostly because the county has found itself in the white-hot national spotlight with little relief from the tension.

Safe passage offer has limits

COURTESY OF THE HARNEY COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward says his community is being held hostage to a national cause. Most people in the county want the protest to end peacefully, Ward says.Ward says his Jan. 7 offer of safe passage if the militants decide to leave still stands, but has a limited shelf life as law enforcement patience wears thin. “At this point, if those folks walked out the back door and left, I doubt anybody would stop them,” he says. “I think there could come a point when I could be shouldered out of the process. I’m not going to be able to leave that offer out there forever.”

In one of his first interviews since the standoff began Jan. 2, Ward says Harney County residents are being “held hostage” by militants at the refuge complex and their “national agenda.” The issue has divided the small towns of Burns and Hines, Ward said, and it could take a long time for the communities to heal.

“What’s going on here is unfair to our community,” Ward says. “It’s damaging our way of life. Our community is being held hostage for a list of demands that is really about nationwide issues.

“I fear that we may never be able to get our community back to the place it was just six weeks ago. That innocence is lost. We may never look at a strange face in town again without being suspicious.”

A learning experience

Ward says his deputies have seen an increase in intimidation and harassment of local government employees, including federal workers who live in the area. In a Jan. 11 statement, Ward said several government employees have reported that they and their families were being followed, that people they didn’t know were sitting in vehicles outside their houses for hours, and that they received threats of unspecified legal action from people associated with the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

In some cases, people who support the militants have confronted local government employees in grocery stores or other public places, Ward says.

Ward ties the intimidation to the wildlife refuge standoff. “This stuff wasn’t happening before these folks showed up,” he says.

Shortly after the occupation began, Ward says private information about some federal employees “fell into these people’s hands” through computers at the refuge, and that led to the reported harassment. Sixteen families have moved out of the area because they feared for their safety, Ward says.

“We’re all members of this community, and that isn’t right or fair to these families,” he says.

Ward says his resources are stretched thin by handling those types of calls, and other law enforcement duties in the 10,228-square-mile county. He’s had two days off since Christmas, and, like most of his staff, is working 14 or more hours each day.

Staton says sheriffs across the state see the standoff as a “huge learning experience.”

“This is not something we run into every day,” he says. “We’re going to learn something from this at just about every level.”

Ward says he and other law enforcement agencies are working toward a peaceful resolution in hopes that the occupation will end soon and his county can “get back to normal.”

“A majority of people here want those folks to go home peacefully,” he says. “They want the situation to come to an end. They want to get their lives back to normal.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t have to work through a lot of things. We’ve all got concerns about how we’re governed. But we can work that out through the right process. Not this way.”

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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