Poised at the taut intersection of highly polarizing issues plaguing the West, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation holds this community in a state of high tension for 41 days, resulting in the death of one of the occupiers, arrests of dozens more…and the creation of deep and lasting divisions. As we track Harney County’s challenges and successes during and after the occupation, we believe we can learn from—and return to—each other, in a journey toward a more inclusive, more just, and more resilient future, for the West and for our nation.

Producers/Directors Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm

Producers/Directors Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm


The motto we developed for our previous film, Dryland, was “Cultivating Rural Resilience.” While spending time over ten years in the visually stunning wheat country of Eastern Washington, we learned a lot about the struggles and rewards of living in and supporting a small agricultural community in the Intermountain West. We screened Dryland in nearly 100 theatres—from Chicago, Illinois, to Athens, Georgia, to Orcas Island, Washington, and in many communities in between, where people were intrigued with this story of ingenuity and perseverance in rural America. Here’s the link to the film’s trailer: DRYLAND

Now, our storytelling has led us to explore an even more complex scenario facing another rural Western community at risk—our part-time home for more than 26 years. The, vast, sparsely inhabited (10,000 square miles with around 7,300 residents,) and, at times, economically challenged community of Harney County, Oregon is home to multi-generational ranches, a once-vibrant mill town economy, and a mainstay for Basque culture in the Great Basin, among other assets. It is also the ancient homeland to the Northern Paiute people, now the Burns Paiute Tribe. And its wet meadows provide critical, lush habitat for a spectacular springtime migration of dozens of waterfowl species. Burns is found on every classroom globe…but ironically known, until recently, by few.

By now, most people recognize Burns and Harney County, set in Southeast Oregon’s High Desert, for the early 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with a diverse amalgamation of self-styled patriots and militia members drawn from across the country, the refuge occupation held this community in a state of high tension for 41 days, resulting in the death of one of the occupiers and arrests of dozens more. Little did we know that a planned rally in the Burns Safeway parking lot on January 2nd would result in an internationally-covered event, leaving deep and lasting effects in our community.

The story of the refuge occupation emerges out of several backstories poised at the taut intersection of highly polarizing issues plaguing the West—some of which we’re personally familiar with. The re-sentencing and looming re-incarceration of Dwight and Steven Hammond, Harney County ranchers convicted of arson on public land near their ranch, was the ostensible spark for the occupation. Our early film work in Harney County in the early ‘90s had explored local fallout from the highly contentious Sagebrush Rebellion and Wise Use Movements, pitted against the mostly urban conservation community, who hoped to preserve the natural landscape here and enact land-use reforms…and then the emerging efforts of some to seek consensus-based solutions to these problems, a process we also filmed. We hoped a collaborative vision might emerge—against the odds. As it turns out, Harney County has indeed become a place where collaboration succeeds, with painstaking and persistent attention, perhaps due to the unusual qualities of the location itself, and a fierce adherence to place found in this vast county, larger in scale than several Eastern states.

Monica McCanna, a local resident, recently told us, “Harney County is different from the places I’ve lived. We’re 130 miles from anywhere. We’re smaller, we’re spread out, but we’re close. Because of the isolation, we have to create community; we need to rely on each other in order to survive. I realize that not everybody gets along, not everybody agrees with each other—basically, we can agree to disagree. I think that’s a big deal.”

Also, over two decades, we’ve been invited to relate stories of the Burns Paiute Tribe, striving to secure cultural and economic vitality, despite the 19th Century forced removal from their homelands and, upon their return, subsequent restriction to less and less of the original allotted reservation. The question of “original ownership” of land during the occupation provided a note of irony, when the Tribe was not named. Having been forced into the spotlight during the occupation, the Burns Paiute Tribe has dealt with mixed consequences, just as we witnessed within the community at large.


Filming here since the occupation began, we learned that, during and afterward, local residents split ideologically, resulting in the rupture of friendships, business ties, and even family bonds. Wide distrust echoed widely along social media pathways, mirroring the growing fissures in our national political landscape during the 2016 election and since. With both the 2016 and 2017 Oregon trials of 11 occupation defendants, resulting largely in acquittals, and the subsequent dismissal of the Bunkerville trial in Nevada of Cliven, Ammon, and Ryan Bundy and Ryan Payne, emotions have again flared along polarized lines, both in Harney County and across the country. One only needs to follow Facebook or Twitter threads, attached to any one of the myriad news articles reporting on these cases, to see an entrenched polemic and caustic language eroding the potential for reasoned discussion.

Since we’ve been producing Refuge, we’ve interviewed people who cleave to quite divergent socio-political beliefs around these incendiary issues: The preservation of public lands versus privatization or transfer to local control, facing increasing scrutiny under the current administration. The arousal of existing, and the formation of new anti-government factions. A refreshed discussion of Native sovereignty and race-based privilege, and the comparisons with the recent North Dakota pipeline protests. Urban encroachment into rural agricultural land. Questions around Constitutional interpretation, alternative notions of legal jurisdiction, and judicial accountability—all swirling around the news-grabbing topics of the Bunkerville standoff and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County.

These ideas merit scrutiny, analysis—and action, where necessary, to protect equity, freedom, and the democratic principles we cherish. Yet, in a moment where we’re more uncertain than any time recently of the direction our country is taking, we fumble with ways to act effectively. Do we protest? Pursue litigation? Seek office? Demand election or judicial reforms? Document these stories, in one way or another? We’ve worked to maintain the authentic voices of each person whom we’ve filmed, and will weave these stories into a multi-faceted narrative that we hope portrays this momentous event with nuance, and balance—and even humor. That said, it would be really hard to adequately produce one work that could satisfy each of these issues or points of view. However, there are several foundational issues that have recurred during filming, which we find intriguing and really important, especially if we hope to move beyond division and seek solutions to these divisive dilemmas.

Notably, people from all sides of these frustrating and sometimes nearly paralyzing debates perceive that there’s truly a great deal at stake, along with a striking sense of urgency.  Wendell Berry noted, “What I stand for is what I stand on.” A fierce connection to place may indeed be the one element uniting opposites in these tense battles, expressed here in disputes over land ownership and control.

While value and belief systems are oppositional among many of those we’ve spoken with, certain common threads have emerged: the essential idea of freedom, whether on public lands or in private enterprise; an abiding fear of loss; the need to protect that which is fragile or at risk; and the need to reinforce identity and the sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. Eliciting these threads, and finding a level of common humanity within apparently irreconcilable and entrenched positions, we see the critical need to actively listen, and to re-energize the practice of civil discourse and productive debate, in order to strengthen both our communities and our nation.

Can we remain in the most difficult of conversations, where dissonance is tolerated—even welcomed—in search of answers? Can we engage each other more directly, in an arena where “extreme listening” supplants contemptuous, dismissive rhetoric, spitting us beyond the point of salvage? We need to summon more creative thinking, in order to pull ourselves out of these binary patterns, listen to each other’s stories, and hopefully imagine a new way West, author Wallace Stegner’s “native home of hope.”

Author, Educator, Historian of the American West, and Director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Dr. Patricia Limerick notes that to many, “The West is remote and vast; its isolation and distance will release us from conflict; this is where we can get away from each other.” However, despite these aims, “the workings of history carried the opposite lesson,” she writes. “The West is not where we escaped each other, but where we all met.”

As we track Harney County’s challenges and successes during and after the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, as a microcosm of some of our national travails, we can learn from—and return to—each other, in a journey toward a more inclusive, more just, and more resilient future, for the West and our nation.

Sue Arbuthnot & Richard Wilhelm