Just days before the start of the 2016 Washington Legislature, state Rep. Matt Shea and a handful of other Republican lawmakers from around the West arrived in Burns, Oregon, saying they wanted to help negotiate a peaceful resolution to the standoff at the nearby federal wildlife refuge.
Local officials told them to go home; their help wasn’t wanted and there was nothing to negotiate. The protesters occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge could leave the facility and the state, local law enforcement representatives said. Or they could remain and be arrested.
If the lawmakers went out to the refuge, it could embolden the demonstrators, and they might stay in the refuge for weeks, or even months, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty told the group. Don’t go, he said.
For a little over an hour on Jan. 9, Shea and other members of the Coalition of Western States, a group of like-minded lawmakers formed in 2014, pressed their case to serve as intermediaries in the standoff, an audio recording acquired recently by Oregon Public Broadcasting shows.
Shea refused a request to talk about the meeting with The Spokesman-Review. But the recording suggests that early in the meeting, he said the group’s purpose was to get a peaceful resolution: “If there’s any opportunity to save life and prevent any further escalation I think we all agree that we should take that opportunity.”
The four-term Spokane Valley Republican is a leader of the Coalition of Western States, as well as the conservative Liberty Caucus in the Washington House of Representatives. The caucus backed what it calls a Freedom Agenda that includes a bill calling for the transfer of federal lands in Washington to the state. At the refuge, protesters led by Ammon Bundy were also demanding federal land be turned over to the states.
The recording obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting shows local officials weren’t in the mood to discuss the issue of federal land ownership while their communities were in an uproar over the siege at the refuge. When one of the other lawmakers, Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, said she couldn’t imagine Bundy and the other protesters making credible threats, Grasty seemed to scoff.
Grasty, whose position is administrative, not judicial, said one of the protesters told reporters the group had shooters lined up to kill federal employees. Families of local officials had been followed and harassed, and a pickup truck was driving around town with a bumper sticker that used a vulgarity to insult Islam.
Fiore demanded to know where the truck was from. “You’re giving me these hypotheticals but you’re not giving me facts … It could’ve been your neighbor’s son.”
Two people in the truck followed a BLM employee and told her she ought to die, Grasty shot back: “Is that a good enough example?”
Shea then broke in to “shift gears” and get information on what federal laws the protesters were accused of breaking, asking whether they would be misdemeanors or felonies. An FBI official replied that it would be up to the U.S. attorney’s office since the refuge is a federal facility.
Later Shea said the lawmakers were worried how people in their states were reacting to “abuses” by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. “People feel so frustrated and so hopeless and so out of options that they may look at this … and may actually do this in our states.”
If the group of lawmakers could talk with the protesters and get them to go home, that conversation could start discussions around the country, Shea said.
Fiore called the BLM “an agency of terrorism” that takes land from citizens and puts them at risk.
Grasty replied that Oregon has been moving land from federal to local control for years, but that wasn’t the conversation that day. He said, “Get these terrorists – and they are terrorists – out of my county.”
Again, Shea sought to lower the temperature in the room, saying, “We are here not to do anything to be harmful; we’re here to be helpful.”
Later that day, the lawmakers did talk with protesters. Grasty’s prediction proved correct, and the siege continued until Jan. 27, when Bundy and several other protesters were arrested en route to a meeting and one member of their group, LaVoy Finicum, was shot when law enforcement officials said he went for a gun. Four other demonstrators remained at the refuge another 10 days; when the FBI began to close the perimeter, Fiore helped negotiate their surrender.
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