A large flock of sandhill cranes squawks overhead as Brenden Quinlan watches what’s left of an early season snow storm roll off the massive Steens Mountain; the snow turning to sleet and then rain as it soaks the wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote eastern Oregon.
“It’s something I find that’s medicinal [to] come and hang out here,” Quinlan says. “It’s quiet.”
This was Quinlan’s first visit to the refuge in 44 years. He used to come with his Dad as a kid. It hadn’t occurred to him to return until this year, when he and his wife watched with alarm as armed militants took over the bird sanctuary, an anti-federal government protest that unfolded for 41 days of drama online and on the nightly news.
His wife, a native Oregonian, had never heard of the refuge, and Quinlan responded, “Oh my God we have to go.” So they planned this year’s week-long vacation here.
“That’s what brought us here, those guys,” he says, grinning.
The Quinlans stayed for the nature. Long before the refuge became synonymous with the modern American militia movement, the Malheur was known as one of the most important migratory bird corridors on the West Coast. It is home to more than 300 bird species with a footprint spreading across 280 square miles of protected wetlands and high desert.
While the maze of backcountry roads and hiking trails have reopened, the refuge visitor center — including its bookstore, museum and grounds — remains closed due to security concerns. There’s only a guard and a padlocked gate at the entrance where months ago, Ammon Bundy and his militia followers gathered in the snowy sage brush for their daily press conferences.
“As far as being operational as a refuge, we’re just not there yet,” says manager Chad Karges.
A lot of the work is behind schedule, too. Karges and his staff were moved to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services office in Portland during the occupation itself. Some of his biologists and other field staff traumatized by the siege have since quit or requested transfers.
All of this is occurring as the refuge itself is experiencing more visitors than it has in years.
“I think some of that is people wanting to show their support for the refuge and conservation efforts,” Karges says. He also figures some people are just curious about what happened here.
Whatever the reason, the fact that there’s a boom in tourism is ironic when you consider that the mostly out-of-state occupiers had said they were there to call attention to how the federal government is hurting the economy in the rural West.
During the occupation, Bundy had famously called for getting “the loggers back to logging and the ranchers back to ranching” in Harney County, where the federal government owns and manages roughly three-quarters of all the land.
For now though, it’s hard to get a reservation at the area’s old historic stagecoach hotels and good luck finding an open campsite at the last minute, even on a week night.
“It’s beautiful country and you never know what kind of wildlife you’re going to find,” says Mary Krinowitz, between bites of homemade baked chicken and salad inside the Frenchglen Hotel dining room.
Krinowitz, on vacation from home near Bend, Ore., likens a visit to the refuge and tiny Frenchglen as a window into the Old West. Frenchglen takes its name from Peter French, one of the area’s first cattle barons who came up from California in the late 1800s.
Local businesses are poised to have a record season when it comes to bookings. But there’s a sense that the spike in tourism may only be temporary.
“Harney County got put on the map this year,” says Linda Gainer, owner of the Narrows Café and RV Park up the road.
The TV news crews, state troopers and FBI agents who packed her tables during the 41-day siege last winter have come and gone. So she’s happy to see the tourists replacing them.
But she figures everything will probably quiet down after the trial up in Portland ends.
She says most tourists — and locals — are anxiously awaiting the day that the visitor center and headquarters reopens.
“I hope it’s soon, because that’s just one more thing that gets us back to normal, for the community,” Gainer says.