Malheur Occupation: Financial boom or bust?

Harney County Sherif, David Ward, addresses a packed town hall meeting in Burns. Photo: Michael Albright/


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The gun-toting, tough-talking ranchers who holed up in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge are but the latest incarnation of that old western icon: the land grabber in a Stetson. The characters of the Wild West have provided plenty of precedent for the Bundy theatrics, although the latter may top all others for media coverage.

But there is a unique aspect to the antics of the latest version of the Marlboro Man. In an age when people put a price tag on everything, a couple of folks have gone to the trouble of calculating the direct cost to society of the standoff

The most straightforward account — and perhaps the most important, with regard to the Bundys — came from Harney County Judge Steve Grasty. He crunched the numbers on the cost to Harney County alone (school closures, police overtime, extra supplies for county workers and the construction and operation of a special command center) and came up with a $75,000 per diem bill that he intends to send to Nevada “activist” Ammond Bundy.

The final invoice could top $1 million the judge told community members at a local meeting.

But there is another way to view the standoff from an economic standpoint, says Pat Beard, event recruiter with Travel Pendleton: Burns is getting worldwide attention, with millions of impressions through traditional and social media.

“This is an economic home run for Burns. Now, there are people in Paris and London who know about Burns Oregon,” Beard says. “When you run a business in a small town in Eastern Oregon, any increase in traffic to your town makes a huge difference.”

Potential tourists now know about the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and inevitably some will make their way there, drawn both by the opportunity to visit the scene of the historic standoff, and the scenic beauty that television cameras have been broadcasting for weeks.

“You’ll get some TV or newspaper reporter from the city who’ll start going on about the stark, unspoiled beauty of the sagebrush landscape, and that’s going to resonate with some people,” Beard says wryly. “This thing has put Burns on the map.”

In fact, local businesses say their sales are up, driven by the throngs of law enforcement agents, media and fans and foes of the Bundy crew. “I wish it were different circumstances, but we do love it,” Bella Java & Bistro manager Tammy DeLange told OPB news.

Dan Cook is a Portland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Oregon Business.