Anti-Government Standoff Puts Oregon's Malheur Back On Tourist Map

Oct 12, 2016
Originally published on October 12, 2016 4:47 pm

A large flock of sandhill cranes squawks overhead as Brenden Quinlan watches what's left of an early season snow storm roll off the massive Steens Mountain; the snow turning to sleet and then rain as it soaks the wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote eastern Oregon.

"It's something I find that's medicinal [to] come and hang out here," Quinlan says. "It's quiet."

This was Quinlan's first visit to the refuge in 44 years. He used to come with his Dad as a kid. It hadn't occurred to him to return until this year, when he and his wife watched with alarm as armed militants took over the bird sanctuary, an anti-federal government protest that unfolded for 41 days of drama online and on the nightly news.

His wife, a native Oregonian, had never heard of the refuge, and Quinlan responded, "Oh my God we have to go." So they planned this year's week-long vacation here.

"That's what brought us here, those guys," he says, grinning.

The Quinlans stayed for the nature. Long before the refuge became synonymous with the modern American militia movement, the Malheur was known as one of the most important migratory bird corridors on the West Coast. It is home to more than 300 bird species with a footprint spreading across 280 square miles of protected wetlands and high desert.

While the maze of backcountry roads and hiking trails have reopened, the refuge visitor center — including its bookstore, museum and grounds — remains closed due to security concerns. There's only a guard and a padlocked gate at the entrance where months ago, Ammon Bundy and his militia followers gathered in the snowy sage brush for their daily press conferences.

"As far as being operational as a refuge, we're just not there yet," says manager Chad Karges.

A lot of the work is behind schedule, too. Karges and his staff were moved to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services office in Portland during the occupation itself. Some of his biologists and other field staff traumatized by the siege have since quit or requested transfers.

All of this is occurring as the refuge itself is experiencing more visitors than it has in years.

"I think some of that is people wanting to show their support for the refuge and conservation efforts," Karges says. He also figures some people are just curious about what happened here.

Whatever the reason, the fact that there's a boom in tourism is ironic when you consider that the mostly out-of-state occupiers had said they were there to call attention to how the federal government is hurting the economy in the rural West.

During the occupation, Bundy had famously called for getting "the loggers back to logging and the ranchers back to ranching" in Harney County, where the federal government owns and manages roughly three-quarters of all the land.

For now though, it's hard to get a reservation at the area's old historic stagecoach hotels and good luck finding an open campsite at the last minute, even on a week night.

"It's beautiful country and you never know what kind of wildlife you're going to find," says Mary Krinowitz, between bites of homemade baked chicken and salad inside the Frenchglen Hotel dining room.

Krinowitz, on vacation from home near Bend, Ore., likens a visit to the refuge and tiny Frenchglen as a window into the Old West. Frenchglen takes its name from Peter French, one of the area's first cattle barons who came up from California in the late 1800s.

Local businesses are poised to have a record season when it comes to bookings. But there's a sense that the spike in tourism may only be temporary.

"Harney County got put on the map this year," says Linda Gainer, owner of the Narrows Café and RV Park up the road.

The TV news crews, state troopers and FBI agents who packed her tables during the 41-day siege last winter have come and gone. So she's happy to see the tourists replacing them.

But she figures everything will probably quiet down after the trial up in Portland ends.

She says most tourists — and locals — are anxiously awaiting the day that the visitor center and headquarters reopens.

"I hope it's soon, because that's just one more thing that gets us back to normal, for the community," Gainer says.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Until this year, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was a remote bird sanctuary in Oregon that didn't get a ton of visitors. That was until Ammon Bundy and his militia followers went in last January and occupied it. This was part of a protest over federal ownership of Western lands. The occupation, though, had an unintended effect. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports tourists and new visitors are arriving to the refuge in record numbers.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is still closed. There's only a guard and a padlocked gate here at the entrance where months ago Ammon Bundy and his armed followers gathered in the snowy sagebrush for daily press conferences.

But the rest of this 280-square-mile refuge is once again open, and you're free to explore its maze of back roads and trails. Brendan Quinlan is watching a storm rolling off the 9,000-foot-high Steens Mountain. A large flock of sandhill cranes squawks overhead.

BRENDAN QUINLAN: It's something - I find it's, like - it's medicinal. You come out here and just hang out, and it's quiet.

SIEGLER: Quinlan and his wife arrived after a six-hour drive from Portland only to find the Visitors' Center. Its museum and its book store are closed. But they didn't mind. He used to visit the refuge as a kid with his dad, and it hadn't occurred to him to come back until this year.

QUINLAN: We were watching the occupiers on the news. My wife asked, where is this place? And she's a native Oregonian I said, you've never been out there. And she goes, no. And I was like, oh, my God, we have to go. So we planned this year's vacation. So that's what brought us here - those guys.

SIEGLER: Long before the refuge became synonymous with the modern American militia movement, the Malheur was known as one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries on the West Coast.

CHAD KARGES: This basin is one of the primary nesting areas for the lesser...

SIEGLER: Though there are still some lingering security concerns. Chad Karges manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

KARGES: We are back in the buildings, but you know, as far as being operational as a refuge, we're just not there yet.

SIEGLER: A lot of the field work is behind schedule, too. And Karges is short staffed even as the refuge itself is experiencing more visitors than it has for years.

KARGES: I think some of that is people wanting to show their support for the refuge and, you know, conservation efforts, as well as people are just curious about what happened here.

SIEGLER: The fact that there's a boon in tourism here is ironic when you consider that the mostly out-of-state occupiers had said they were trying to call attention to how the federal government was hurting the economy in the rural West.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGLER: On a fall weeknight, the campgrounds here are at capacity, and two of the area's old historic stagecoach hotels are sold out.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGLER: At the Frenchglen Hotel, guests are swapping stories over a family-style dinner of baked chicken and salads Frenchglen gets its name from Peter French, this area's first cattle baron who came up from California in 1800s. Between bites of dessert, Mary Krinowitz says this remote corner of the country is like a window into the Old West.

MARY KRINOWITZ: It's beautiful country and the most authentic people. And you always - you never know what kind of wildlife you're going to find.

SIEGLER: Now, it's not exactly crowded. A rancher joked to me he's seeing about 20 cars a day instead of the usual one or two. And there's a sense that the spike in business will probably quiet down after the trial for the armed militants ends.

LINDA GAINER: Harney County, you know, got put on the map this year.

SIEGLER: Linda Gainer owns The Narrows cafe and RV park. The TV news crews and FBI agents who packed her tables during the 41-day siege have come and gone, and she's happy to see the tourists replacing them, even if some are frustrated that the Visitors' Center isn't open.

GAINER: I mean I hope it's soon that they reopen because then that's just one more thing that gets us back to normal for the community.

SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.