About 400 people packed the Vale High School gym March 3 for a wide-ranging town hall that touched on rural concerns and federal overreach, with a call for respect and unity.
Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe scheduled the event after the militant occupation of the federal wildlife refuge in neighboring Harney County came to a head last month.
Wolfe, flanked by student body officers from several county high schools and with a contingent of students bused in from Jordan Valley High, opened the meeting with a prayer and the Star Spangled Banner.
“We are a nation divided,” said Wolfe, “and we are on the onset of a county that is beginning to divide. We must unite and respect each other.”
The sheriff announced he had recently returned from a meeting in Portland, where he had the opportunity to personally speak with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“I don’t think our voices are heard, and that is part of the problem,” Wolfe said. “I told her I believed the imprisonment of the Hammonds in California was unjust. She said she heard my concerns.”
Wolfe discussed his personal relationship with the Hammond family, whose incarceration triggered the protest and militant standoff in Burns, and his belief the father and son are both “good law-abiding citizens.”
“I spoke with their attorney on Monday,” said Wolfe. “He is working on obtaining them clemency and full restoral of their BLM grazing rights.”
Wolfe, who is the president of the Oregon State Sheriffs Association, was involved in the law enforcement turnout in Harney County after the militants took over the refuge.
“If they needed my help again, I would be there tomorrow,” said Wolfe. “Every sheriff’s office in the state participated in some way.
“I do not want that mess that occurred up there in Malheur County. You had people coming in that are just there to stir up things, divide the community and then leave. I learned a lot from being there. If that type of thing happened here, we would not tolerate behavior like that.”
In addition to sheriff’s offices, the Oregon State Police and the FBI were among the agencies responding to Harney County.
Discussing the role of the FBI, Wolfe told the crowd a county sheriff does not have the right to remove a federal agent from a crime situation. Other situations may be different.
“Some years ago, I did tell an FBI agent to leave as he was attempting to do a warrantless search for a felon,” said Wolfe. “My office will always be there to protect the constitutional rights of citizens in this county.”
Wolfe announced he is creating a 16-member citizen advisory board to the sheriff’s office that will meet on various issues, on a regular basis.
He also criticized the proposed designation of a vast swath of Malheur County as an Owyhee Canyonlands national monument, which could be enacted by a stroke of the president’s pen.
“If this is done, it will increase fire danger and mean less money into the county,” Wolfe said. “We need to embrace multiple use of the lands and see a relationship between ranches and sportsman. This is protection of the land in the right way.”
Wolfe announced there will be a letter writing event March 21-22 to help people craft letters about the Canyonlands and direct them to the correct decision-makers.
While several environmental groups are promoting the Canyonlands proposal, Wolfe said there are real environmentalists in Malheur County.
“Malheur County has more environmentalists than any other county in Oregon,” said Wolfe. “The true environmentalists are the farmers and ranchers that take care of the land.”
Wolfe also cited the out-migration of the county’s youth, who leave for school and jobs, as another challenge.
“We live in the greatest place on the earth, but we need to boost our economy so our children remain here and raise their families,” Wolfe said. “We can agree to disagree.”
Wolfe wrapped up the forum with questions from the audience.
Asked if he was a member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the answer from the head law enforcement officer in the county was quick and succinct.
“No, I am not,” Wolfe said. Referring to the group’s standard-bearer, former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, he added, “Sheriff Mack and I don’t agree on everything.”
Asked what he knew of the plans to detain and arrest LaVoy Finicum and others who occupied the refuge, Wolfe urged the people to wait for the facts to come out in the investigation.
“You need to see all the evidence to make an informed decision,” said Wolfe. “You will know the truth, but you need to wait for the evidence.”
Asked by Bob Williams about abuse of power by the federal government, Wolfe explained his department could be either in front of or behind local residents.
“If you constitutional rights are being violated, we will be in front of you, supporting you,” Wolfe said. “If you handle the situation in the wrong way, we will be behind you putting handcuffs on you.”
“I don’t feel safe and don’t trust our officers any longer,” said Janet Shira, one of the last audience members to speak.
“There are a lot of stories out there,” Wolfe responded. “You should not be worried, but I respect your feelings.”
Asked exactly what a well-regulated militia is, Wolfe said it’s easy to explain the term militia, but a little more difficult to find agreement on what “well regulated” means in today’s world.
“The group in Harney County had freedom of speech and planned to protest, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Wolfe said. “I wish they would have stayed with that.”