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Membrship in nonprofit Friends group skyrockets; some worry about other 'soft targets'

COURTESY OF TIM BLOUNT/HARNEYBIRDER.COM - Ross' Geese gather in Harney County near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. A nonprofit group that supports refuge programs raised more than $30,000 during the 41-day standoff with militants at the Harney County site.While armed militants stomped around Tim Blount’s Harney County home, he was busy rolling up donations and adding members to his group.

Blount, executive director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, says the 41-day occupation of the 187,757-acre refuge, where he lives, had a big silver lining for the nonprofit organization. Thanks to the national spotlight, the Friends raised more than $30,000 in donations during the past month and saw its membership skyrocket from 130 to 700 members.

That’s pretty good for a nonprofit listing about $72,085 in assets on its 2014 tax documents (the most recent year available). The Friends group operates on donations and grants. It costs between $20 and $500 a year to join the organization.

People upset by the occupation were eager to help the nonprofit that provides programs and plans projects at the wildlife refuge, Blount says. While about two dozen armed militants with the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom made themselves at home, people across the nation discovered the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and pungled up donations.

COURTESY OF TIM BLOUNT - Tim Blount, executive director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, has not been home since the Jan. 2 takeover of the Harney County refuge.“The outpouring has just been amazing,” Blount says. “A lot of people felt the need to help and to show love for the refuge. It makes this job so incredible because people care so much.”

In addition to money, hundreds of people are already volunteering to help clean up the refuge once law enforcement finishes its work. Blount says that between the Friends group and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at least 1,000 people have said they would travel to Harney County to clean and repair refuge buildings.

An occupy-a-thon

The occupation’s silver lining extended beyond the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Other Northwest environmental groups and a national wildlife refuge organization felt ripples of support and fundraising from the spotlight.

“I think this illegal occupation has raised awareness of wildlife refuges in general, and Malheur specifically,” says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. “We have heard from people from all over the country and all over the world that were concerned and angry about the occupation and who wanted to know what they could do to help.”

Christine Dorsey McGowan, director of strategic communications with the National Wildlife Refuge Association in Washington, D.C., says the armed occupation in Harney County focused a lot of attention on “a small group of angry people who have a big beef with the federal government, but whose grievances really had nothing to do with Malheur National Wildlife Refuge or the refuge system.”

“What people didn’t learn was that the National Wildlife Refuge System — established more than a century ago to stop the extinction of so many species that were in severe decline — has been largely responsible for the successful recovery of the bald eagle, brown bears and so many other species once on the verge of disappearing forever,” McGowan says.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland says the Harney County refuge standoff also helped raise awareness of the importance of public land.

It wasn’t just conservation groups raising money. Brothers Zack and Jake Klonoski’s GOHOME website ( raised $135,647 from 1,643 donors during the standoff. The Klonoskis asked people to pledge funds for several groups, including the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Burns Paiute Kids House, in a sort of occupy-a-thon that racked up contributions the longer militants stayed at the refuge.

Zach Klonoski of Portland is a policy adviser to Mayor Charlie Hales. Jake Klonoski of Denver is a former U.S. Navy submarine officer. They are sons of U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken of Eugene.

There’s also a bit of irony in the occupation’s goal of dismantling federal control of the land, Sallinger says. The Malheur refuge was a good example of cooperation among ranchers, conservation groups, federal officials and the Burns Paiute Tribe, he says.

“My hope is that what this event will ultimately do is catalyze and even stronger public lands movement across the United States, as well as provide much needed support for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the amazing collaborative efforts that occurring on and around the refuge,” Sallinger says.

There are 21 national wildlife refuges in Oregon, including the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 99W in Sherwood. Across the nation, there are 561 refuges, most of which are open year-round to the public.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ROB KERR - After the Jan. 2 takeover, armed militants showed reporters around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge compound. The 41-day occupation ended peacefully Feb. 11 when the last holdouts surrendered.

‘Huge disruption’

Technically, Blount has been homeless since early January, when militants took over his house at the refuge. He’s trying to get used to the “new normal.” It’s not easy, because Blount probably won’t be able to return to his refuge home for several more weeks as FBI agents process the area as a crime scene.

For the past six weeks, Blount has been living outside of Harney County, a guest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge. He still fears for his safety, so he has kept his location a secret.

When he accepted the job as the Friends’ executive director in May 2015, Blount says he didn’t expect to face armed protesters. “This wasn’t in the job description,” he says. “It’s been a huge disruption. I’m fortunate that I don’t have a dog.”

Blount is one of about a half-dozen people who live year-round in the refuge compound about 30 miles south of Burns. His job with the Friends organization is to facilitate projects and guide programs at the refuge. Also on the refuge is the Great Basin Society’s Malheur Field Station, which opens each year to students studying the region’s desert habitat.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places you can imagine,” Blount says. “Where I live, I don’t hear car noise, and I don’t have all those manmade sounds that pollute the atmosphere. I hear birds singing and coyotes yowling.”

This wasn’t in the job description.”

Blount wasn’t at the compound on Jan. 2 as the group led by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, walked in and took over. He left his home and belongings, and has been unable to reach them as the occupation stretched into weeks.

When leaders of the occupation were arrested during a Jan. 26 traffic stop on Highway 395 about 20 miles north of Burns, most of the militants who feared an imminent attack by law enforcement dropped their weapons and their belongings and fled into the night. About a dozen people were left at the refuge, and most of those also fled soon afterward. Only four people stayed behind, camping for two more weeks on a loop road in a muddy corner of the compound, defending it from what they thought would be an assault by FBI agents. The attack never came.

The occupation ended peacefully Feb. 11, when the last holdouts — David Fry, Jeff Banta and Sean and Sandy Anderson — surrendered one by one after several tense hours of negotiations with FBI agents who set up barricades close to the camp.

They and about two dozen others involved in the occupation face felony charges of using intimidation and threats to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs. Most are being held in Multnomah County’s Inverness Jail awaiting trial on the charges. They have all entered not-guilty pleas to the federal charges.

During their search of the compound, FBI officials reported in court documents that they found large amounts of food spoiling in refuge buildings, deep trenches and improvised roads dug near “sensitive artifacts,” and another trench with human feces near the holdouts’ camp site. They also found guns and explosives in buildings, and took precautions in case of booby traps.

COURTESY OF TIM BLOUNT/HARNEYBIRDER.COM - Tim Blount says his wildlife refuge home is 'one of the most beautiful places you can imagine.'

Return to normalcy

As FBI teams search for evidence, Blount and others worry that anti-government militants could see other refuges (some near urban areas) as easy targets for copycat actions. He says local law enforcement is piling up lessons and experiences they hadn’t anticipated.

“In a way, part of the innocence of the wildlife refuge has been affected,” Blount says. “I still don’t know what the new normal looks like. Nobody does at this point.”

Sallinger hopes prosecution of the Harney County occupiers sends a message to others planning future actions. “An armed illegal occupation that included threats and intimidation, destruction of public property and natural resources, and interference with Native American artifacts, is not a political statement; it is a criminal activity,” he says.

“The best way to repudiate this kind of illegal activity would be for the Bundys to watch from a jail cell as the community, conservation groups, the Paiutes and the refuge move forward on the collaborative path we were already traveling together before the occupation began.”

McGowan worries that other refuges could be seen as soft targets. “It’s now a sad reality that some extremist factions in our society think a violent takeover of land that belongs to everyone will somehow solve their problems,” she says.

In a way, part of the innocence of the wildlife refuge has been affected.”

Blount is anxious to get back to work. First on his agenda is planning for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, April 7 to 10, which honors John Scharff, the refuge’s first onsite federal manager in 1935, who lived there for 34 years.

The festival draws hundreds of birders to the region every year, pumping thousands of dollars into Harney County’s economy, Blount says. Most of all, it’s a “step back into normalcy” for the community.

“Things have been abnormal since this happened,” Blount says. “There’s a lot of division and all this negative stuff. The bird festival is something, whether you like birds or not, that’s part of normalcy in Burns and Harney County.

“These things we do in Harney County every year will help us get back to the way it was before. It’s going to take some time for the healing process. I think Harney County people can do that. They’re a strong bunch.”

Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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