PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon’s US senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley both commended the Harney County community for the way they handled the militia occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“I think Sheriff Dave Ward really had it right when he said, ‘You all came here to help the community, the best way to help the community is to go home.’ That message came from throughout the leadership of Harney County,” Merkley told KOIN 6 News Friday. “Now we’re at a point where there are, where it’s just about ended, the occupation of the refuge.”
Wyden said “This should have ended a long, long time ago,” and added, “I want to commend the community for their incredible reliance and their determination.”
A total of 11 occupiers — including brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy — were arrested earlier this week by the FBI and Oregon State Police after a nearly monthlong occupation. Seven were arrested when they were intercepted along Highway 395.
The de facto spokesman for the militia, Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, was shot to death during the traffic stop. The FBI released video of the incident that showed the 54-year-old reaching toward his waistband and inner jacket where he had a loaded 9mm semi-automatic handgun.
“We’re saddened that there was a loss of life along the way. But it’s so important to this community that this occupation end,” Merkley said. “I complement the local law enforcement working so well with the FBI towards that end.”
Earlier this week the two senators met with FBI Director James Comey and talked about the situation just a few hours before the arrests were made.
Wyden said the standoff was “a situation where the virus was spreading,” and action needed to be taken.
“What we were struck by is that there is a clear understanding that there’s got to be accountability and there have to be consequences,” he said. “Too often in the past that’s not been the case.”
He said he understands there’s frustration from rural Oregon and rural America that government doesn’t listen. But he said, “There will be plenty of opportunities to work through the policy issues once we get this matter resolved.”
The Bundy family still owes the federal government $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Cliven Bundy — Ammon and Ryan’s father — has refused to pay the fees to the federal government and engaged in an armed standoff in Nevada in 2014.
The lack of accountability “created a sense of empowerment that really fueled the individuals who came (to Harney County),” Merkley said. “There should have been accountability for Nevada. I think there will be as part of what we conversed about with the FBI and the Justice Department. I think that message is being received loud and clear.”
Many people, including Gov. Kate Brown, urged federal officials to take action as the standoff dragged on. It seemed the militia was free to come and go as they pleased, but Merkley said there was a patient plan in place.
“The general sense of the FBI was ‘We want to avoid another Waco. We want to avoid a Ruby Ridge.’ If you immediately go in surround the refuge buildings, it’s a complete standoff. There’s no chance, for perhaps, the types of dialogue that might have enabled people to walk away in the first early days of this.”
The FBI wanted to allow the possibility for the occupiers to leave peacefully, even though “there was a sense by many expressed that it was a big mistake for them to have moved so slowly.”
But justice often takes time, and Merkley said “the gears are still turning on possible indictments for Nevada.”
Both senators said they know the costs of the occupation have been heavy on Harney County and they are working to deal with those issues, perhaps with federal funds.