One Man's Personal Story of the Oregon Wildlife Refuge Taken Over by the Armed Occupiers (Part 1)

This is the first of a two-part series. Click here for Part 2.


I came of age in Harney County. I first visited at 19 under the tutelage of Steve Herman, a faculty member emeritus at Evergreen State College, and I caught his infectious love of wild things in wild places. Growing up a city kid, I did not know such places existed in the United States, and that there was so much wildness left in our country. I was such a stooge, I thought I was in Africa when I saw my first pronghorn.

I went on to live there for three summers; one summer in a tent out in the sagebrush and two summers in a double-wide trailer out near old Fort Harney that we rented from a local cowboy. I was working, first as a poverty-wage intern, then as a field biologist, studying birds on public lands at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, that Theodore Roosevelt was inspired to set aside for wildlife, that no one wanted to own (except for the forcibly evicted First Peoples).

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I was a dorky kid with binoculars and a strange job, but community of Burns didn’t reject me. Over the years, I bought gas and groceries, ate at restaurants, drank in the bars. I shopped at the creepy thrift store in the old post office, the B-H Corp. I learned a few names and faces, was recognized or even known by name at a couple of regular stops. I had my first legal beer on my 21st birthday in the now-defunct Old Camp Casino in Burns. I graduated from college. I fell in love for the first time, and then fled back to the sagebrush licking my wounds, when I fell out of love. I learned the value of hard work, and how much I didn’t know.

I bought a consignment 1987 Chevy three-quarter-ton pickup truck off the used car lot at Ruel Teague Motor Company in Burns after I rolled my first pickup off the road near the Malheur Field Station. I think that wrecked pickup is still out there, at the field station. I have visited it a couple times, to remind myself of my own mortality. I made life-long friends; you know who you are.

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My life moved on— I worked and studied in the Aleutians, Susanville, Missoula, Happy Jack. But Malheur country is a part of me. One of the most important things I ever did with my best friend and wife was to go there together, to share it with her. When I traveled to the University of Montana to defend my doctoral dissertation and drove back, triumphant but alone, to my life in California as a college teacher, I detoured and stayed at that one hotel by the giant American flag in Hines. For my 32nd birthday, and to celebrate completing a PhD in biology, I went out and ate a chicken-fried steak and had a glass of milk in Hines. I’ll bet there’s not another person on the planet who can say that.

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For 17 years, this place has pulled tears, smiles, sweat, blood, and love out of me. I visit there with friends on Memorial Day weekend whenever I can. I try to pass on my love and understanding of the American West, and the wild things and places that make it what it is, to my students. That love and understanding — including the conflicts that divide it and the themes that unify it — was born in Harney County.

I know that my views on the value of public land are perhaps not representative of a lot of real locals, and that’s okay. I don’t try to fault anyone for disagreeing with me. Those differences can be settled through reasonable discussion and the rule of law. At least we all start from a place of love for this country.

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So it means a lot to me when an armed gang of insurrectionists illegally takes what is essentially ground zero of my adult life, with the intention of overthrowing the federal government and ending the rule of law. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the real locals, born and raised there or the public employees who are raising families there. I’d like to see this end without further bloodshed, and soon, so that other dorky kids with wanderlust can find their place in the world and learn who they are.

More importantly than my selfish tale, this needs to end - and cannot be repeated - so that the people of Harney County can get their lives back, and so that we can all get our public lands and wildlife heritage back.

All photos copyright Daniel Barton.

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