In Oregon, Harney County's Economy Is Rebounding Nearly 4 Years After Refuge Standoff

Dec 26, 2019
Originally published on December 26, 2019 5:21 pm
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A takeover of a wildlife refuge by armed militias was not the image that Harney County, Ore., wanted to project to the world. The Bundy family and other militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in that county in 2016. Local leaders were worried about how that standoff would affect the local economy. And since then, they have worked hard to shake the county's unwanted reputation as a haven for far-right extremism. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the town of Burns, the county seat, is starting to boom.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Back in its heyday, the Hines Lumber Mill here employed hundreds of loggers, lumber graders and forklift drivers like Loretta Hickey.

LORETTA HICKEY: When Edward Hines shut down, it pretty much ruined our community.

SIEGLER: The bottom fell out. Harney County went from boasting Oregon's highest per capita wages to its lowest.

HICKEY: The biggest share of Harney County people worked for the lumber mill.

SIEGLER: Hickey found other work and got to stay in her hometown of Burns, but so many others had to leave, especially when the mill finally closed for good about 15 years ago. Its demise was blamed on tougher environmental laws that led to fewer timber sales on public land, cheaper Canadian lumber was also flooding the market, and technology meant you just didn't need as many loggers in the woods. A lot of this context, though, was edited out of the story told by the Bundys here in January of 2016.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Down in front.

SIEGLER: The camo-clad militiamen in their pickup stormed the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Standing on the frozen snowy sagebrush outside the illegally occupied refuge headquarters, Ammon Bundy billed it as a protest over the federal government's control of public land in Harney County.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMMON BUNDY: It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching.

SIEGLER: The Bundys were acquitted, the federal government is still here managing this land, and the county is trying to move on. But it's not easy.

LOLA JOHNSON: No matter what, when people come in and even visit or move in, they always talk about or ask about the occupation and what's going on.

SIEGLER: At the chamber of commerce, director Lola Johnson says the 41-day occupation had an ironic effect.

JOHNSON: Burns, Harney County was put on the map, kind of just to say, hey, look - we're here. And definitely, tourism has gone up a lot more.

SIEGLER: And the economy with it. People are moving here because they like the rural life, and the Internet's better so they can telecommute. An old, neglected brick hotel downtown was gutted and turned into a boutique Western-themed lodge catering to bird-watchers and hikers. There's a hemp manufacturer. And the most talked about thing, the old timber mill that the Bundys blamed the government for shutting, it's reopening. It's been retrofitted to make alfalfa pellets for animal feed.

JERRY STALEY: That's chopped hay inside of this bin right here.

SIEGLER: Jerry Staley is the manager of the new Silver Sage Mill. It will soon be dual-purpose. They also plan to take wood waste off the nearby forests and make wood pellets for home heating. On the main floor, crews are installing insulation to the pipes feeding the pellet chipper. This is a $22 million project run by an organic food entrepreneur from the Portland area. The company Silver Sage Farms has lately been buying up dairies and alfalfa farms in Harney County.

Now, Jerry Staley's lived most of his life in small towns, and he says, matter-of-factly, they have to adapt to a changing world, and this mill is a great example of that.

STALEY: It can't stay the same. Agricultural's changing, timber's changing. And if there's not some investment in it to do it just a little bit different, then everything's dead and people move somewhere else.

SIEGLER: This belies a much bigger debate playing out in rural America, and the tension is a lot of times you need that outside investment and local buy-in to really change and reinvent the economy. After the initial excitement about the mill reopening, people here told me it started to sink in that it's never going to be like it was in its heyday.

STALEY: All the motors here are computer-controlled.

SIEGLER: The manufacturing is different today; you don't need as many people. Still, Ken Smith was thrilled to be one of the first new hires at the refurbished mill. No more going around the country from job to job, as he puts it, chasing money.

KEN SMITH: Yeah, it's huge. Yeah, I don't have to go anywhere. I can stay right here, go home every night after work, see my family.

SIEGLER: Harney County still has its challenges - wages are low, housing is expensive, and they need more businesses to come in. The armed occupation bitterly divided the town, but Loretta Hickey, the old forklift driver, sees the new mill as a symbol that the county is moving on.

HICKEY: I think we have a good attitude. We have a very good attitude. This town doesn't take disappointment very well.

SIEGLER: We don't take disappointment very well because, she says, we're a surviving town.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Burns, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.