OR weekly strives to maintain normal news coverage

Feb 4, 2016

Militia occupation causes disruption in community


By Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

BURNS, OR—Social media devotees have had a field day with the small army of militiamen who are occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, OR, to protest the imprisonment of a pair of local ranchers for committing arson on federal lands.

Online jokesters using hashtags with phrases like “Ya’ll Qaeda,” “#Vanilla Isis,” “Yee Hawdists,” and “Yokel Harem” are living large on Twitter and comparing the militia to a sort of misfit terrorism outfit with a Mayberryesque incompetence with the likes of the characters Barney Fife and Goober. It doesn’t help that the gun-wielding militia have taken over a bird sanctuary.

Randy Parks, editor of the Burns Times-Herald, has been weary of the sensational headlines, the mockery, and the militia itself almost from day one. He sees no novelty in it and wants the occupiers to go back to where they came from so he can return to the business of reporting the real news of Harney County and get some sleep.

“This is a huge disruption,” Parks said in a recent phone interview. “Here, there is an attitude to wait them out, and that’s what the local law enforcement has elected to do. The sooner they leave, the better off we’ll all be.”

The trouble started Jan. 2, when about 300 anti-government protesters arrived in Harney County, a wild, 10,000 square-mile landscape in eastern Oregon.

Then, a small splinter group took over a building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where they have been holed up an entire month, with no indication they will be leaving anytime soon.

The protestors come from Arizona, Utah, Montana and other places outside of Harney County.

Trouble had been festering since 2001, when a fire Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, set on their property burned federal land beyond their property line. The U.S. Department of Justice alleged the fire was to cover up an illegal deer hunt, but the Hammonds maintained they were trying to eradicate an invasive species of underbrush.

Five years later, in August 2006, a lightning strike set the landscape ablaze, triggering a burn ban. Steven Hammond started a back burn to prevent the fire from destroying the winter crop of cattle feed the family had planted on their property. It also burned about an acre of public land.

With that, Dwight and Steven Hammond were charged with several arson-related crimes under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carried a mandatory sentence of 5 years in prison.

The federal judge in the case thought that sentence didn’t fit the Hammonds’ crime, so he reduced the sentences to about three months for Dwight, and a year for Steven. Both served their time in federal prison.

Then in 2010, the Department of Justice appealed the sentences, won in the 9th Circuit, and the men were ordered to return to prison to finish their mandatory sentences.

They turned themselves in without incident Jan. 4, two days after the protests started.

Since then, local schools have been closed and local residents are scared. Even Dwight and Steven Hammond, now in prison, have distanced themselves from the protest, according to Parks.

“The family has asked for privacy,” Parks said. “And I respect that. I think they are good people who made a mistake. I also think the judge made a mistake in sentencing them that first time.”

Parks is a former owner of the Burns Times Herald. The 2,941-circulation weekly was founded in 1887.

He was born and raised in Iowa, and started college at the University of Idaho on the path to becoming a teacher. Halfway through college, he changed his career path and moved to Sun Valley to live the life of a ski bum and work at the resort there. That lifestyle lasted 10 years.

He went on to study broadcasting and moved to Burns in 1989, where he worked at a local radio station for 16 years until the station was sold. Parks moved over to print journalism, went in with four partners, and bought the Times Herald.

Recently, the group sold the paper to a couple of local businessmen. Parks stayed on as editor.

In a place where there is more sagebrush than people, the newspaper’s motto is “Covers Harney County like Sagebrush.”

“I am not a big city person. I like small towns,” he said.

If Parks loves small town life, then Burns must be paradise to him.

Just 3,000 people call the Harney County seat home, according to Parks. The town’s close neighbor, Hines, has 1,500 residents.

By Harney County standards, Burns and Hines would be the “metro” area. The county’s vast landmass has a population of just 7,000, making the area one of the most sparsely populated in the U.S.

Seventy percent of the county’s land belongs to the federal government and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. At the turn of the 20th Century, President Teddy Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which the U.S. Audubon Society considers one of the premiere sites for birds and birding in the U.S.

“The refuge is an interesting place and an important part of our community,” said Parks.

In 2012, a coalition made up of environmentalists, local residents, ranchers, federal government employees and other interested parties agreed on a conservation plan for the refuge. It took three years to negotiate, but the result was a plan everyone could live with, according to Parks.

“They didn’t always agree, but we have always done things by working together,” Parks said. “It is the Harney County way.”

Parks describes his community as quiet and dignified.

“People go about their business and keep to themselves,” he said. “We have residents here who are state and federal employees. We are friends and neighbors, and we don’t point fingers at each other. The outsiders are here doing that and stirring things up.”

He’s also worried that people from other parts of the country are getting the wrong impression of his community from the national media, which is camped out on his doorstep.

“You watch on television, and they focus in on guns and rifles, and they don’t focus on the people. They pick out the most antagonizing snippets and show them,” Parks said. “They take things out of context, sensationalize them, and there’s not much we can do about it. Our residents are thanking us for taking the middle road on our coverage.”

Parks doesn’t like covering the standoff at all. It stretches his small staff too thin.

“We had two reporters on our staff, but in December one left to go work for the local hospital, so it’s just Sam (reporter Samantha White) and me,” he said. “We’re to the point where we want it to end. We want to get on with our lives. We want to cover our schools, our public events, meetings, and the things people need to know.”

The Burns Times Herald is printed at the Bend (OR) Bulletin, about 130 miles from Burns.

“We submit the newspaper electronically on Tuesday nights. They print the paper, and we have a guy who drives out to Bend and returns with the newspaper around 11 or 12 at night. Then three of us go out at 5 a.m. on Wednesday and make our deliveries,” he said.

Despite interruptions from the outside world—national media and self-described militiamen from other parts of the country, Parks is determined to continue covering the day-to-day aspects of his community.

“We’ll continue to not ignore the other news of our community. Our role is to keep people informed and stick to the facts,” he said. “And when the militia and media do finally leave, we’ll still be here to pick up the pieces.”