Headquarters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in more-peaceful days.

Headquarters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in quieter days.

The armed extremists who took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday were hoping to make a dramatic political statement about freedom and patriotism. Cowboys to the barricades! Sagebrush for the people!

Whoops about that.

Their ragtag occupation of the spectacular bird sanctuary has quickly devolved into kitchsy performance art. The handful of extremists, so fueled by Rambo fantasies that they talk with straight faces about “operational security,” planned to create something grandly Shakespearean in the eastern Oregon desert.

Instead they’ve become players in a Monty Python sketch.

My son, Noah, and I have been going to Malheur together for birding and photography for 20 years. While we’re hardly experts, we’re familiar enough with the refuge and its surrounding community that I could have told extremist ringleader Ammon Bundy (if only he had asked!) that Harney County wasn’t going to stand for armed sedition in its midst.

I also could have told them that an awful lot of people in Burns and around the county actually like the refuge – not to mention the tourists it brings to the local economy. (The John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival, held on and around the refuge each April, packs local motels and restaurants, as does a more informal Memorial Day weekend birding extravaganza held annually.)

But local opposition to the takeover is not just about money. It’s about values.

The anti-government warrior wannabes who seized the refuge are completely out of touch with the deep American values held by the vast majority of Harney County residents.

Harney County Sheriff David Ward, hardly a bleeding heart type, told journalists that though the extremists claimed to support local ranchers, “these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

He wants them to go home.

I don’t know the sheriff – have never met him – but have been impressed this week with his restraint and professionalism. He’s had to endure a lot of sniping by people on the political left who think law enforcement should go in with guns ablazing.

That, of course, would play right into the extremists’ Armageddon fantasies. And the fact, so often observed this week, that police elsewhere have not shown similar restraint when people of color have demonstrated in, for example, Ferguson, doesn’t make Sheriff Ward wrong any more than it makes the other violent police responses right.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty pissed at what the extremists are doing. Noah and I would be planning our annual winter trip to the refuge right now, if only it weren’t held by cowboy thugs. But to go in with flash bangs and high powered rifles would only make things worse – not to mention probably destroy the stately old refuge buildings, constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.

Far better is to let the widespread international mockery continue, while the handful of ardent true believers holding the refuge headquarters gets colder and lonelier by themselves out there in the desert.

Meanwhile, it’s been fun – if sometimes aggravating – to watch the national media struggle to understand a story set in a state whose name most of them can’t even pronounce. Most national accounts have been cadged together from the Oregonian’s stories, augmented with Wikipedia and stock photos; a  bird photo from the refuge that ran in the Washington Post was actually shot by Noah a few years ago for an online stock photo site.

Many national writers have spun a fairytale version of the story that bears little relation to reality.

In one of the most stupidly misleading accounts, Newsweek writes that the extremists “stormed” the refuge (in fact, they drove up in their $50,000 urban cowboy pickups and walked into an unoccupied and often unlocked complex). It describes them as “holed up” (they’ve been routinely photographed standing in plain sight outdoors, warming their hands around burn barrels) and in an “armed standoff,” which would imply there was another armed party there against which they stood. (There isn’t, so far. Not a cop in sight.)

The real story is far more subtle and interesting than any of this nonsense. Yes, the extremists are potentially dangerous. I want them out of there, and facing charges.

But so far they’ve made total fools of themselves on the international media stage. What kind of revolution starts with taking over a bird sanctuary? And then asks people to mail them snacks?

As much as I’d like for Noah and me to be able to make our winter visit to the refuge, I’m willing to wait until their egos are so cold and tattered they’re begging to go home.

What if they gave a revolution and everyone just snickered?

What would the Duke do?

What would the Duke do?

Update: Want to know what actual Oregon ranchers think of the cowboys with guns who took over the refuge? Check out this article from the Capital Press, an ag industry publication,  on a statement by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. It says, in part: “OCA does not support illegal activity taken against the government. This includes militia takeover of government property, such as the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.”

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