For businesses in remote eastern Oregon, the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge outside of Burns is an economic windfall. A few dozen people started occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge right after the start of the year. They haven’t left yet. Burns hotels and restaurants are packed with reporters, law enforcement officers and occupiers as a result.
Just off a remote, slushy highway, the Americas Best Value Inn has a horseshoe parking lot designed for truckers. Manager Vickie Allen says she’s never seen a winter like this in Burns. Thirty-eight rooms nearly full every night.
“Oh yeah, sometimes we might only have one person in the house in the winter months – so this is, it’s a godsend, it’s like having summer all winter long,” she said, laughing.
But Allen notes it’s sometimes a strange mix at the continental breakfast bar each morning – law enforcement and occupiers hovering over the coffee urn and Danish.
“The police don’t bother anybody; the militia don’t bother anybody. We only get maybe two or three militia in here a week. They come in to clean up and go back out,” she said.
Everyone has been well behaved. “They just don’t talk over the differences between ‘em you know,” she said.
For seasonal workers too – this is a boon. In the winter here, some local businesses just shutter for months until spring. Liz Houer, a maid, said she usually doesn’t have enough work this time of year to keep on.
“I haven’t had a day off since New Years Day, and normally I have four days off,” she said. “It’s good for me right now, because usually I’m on unemployment about this time.”
Tammy DeLange manages Bella Java & Bistro in downtown Burns, Ore. She’s been serving up coffee, breakfast, lunches and catering to the many visitors in town since the Malheur refuge occupation began in eastern Oregon.
At about a half dozen hotels in Burns, most are selling triple or double the rooms they usually would this time of year.
In town, the Bella Java & Bistro coffee shop is waking up. You have to clamor over piles of slick-packed snow to make it inside. Regulars, like a table-full of ball-cap-wearing Burns veterans, trek in for coffee. Strangers too – like a posse of Oregonian newspaper writers. Manager Tammy DeLange is working overtime in the back. Today, she was making lunchtime beef wraps for the 10 or so law enforcement officers protecting the town’s elementary school.
“I wish it were different circumstances, but we do love it. It’s helping the businesses as far as restaurants and stuff,” she said.
She said she’s had occupiers in too – they’ve been polite. But the sheer volume of business hasn’t let up.
“Oh my gosh. It starts at 7:30 a.m. and coffees, breakfast, trying to do prep, like I said we’re catering right now, lunches are overwhelming and then they’re still here at 3 p.m.,” she said.
But not every business in the area is getting a boost. Traffic at the B&B Sporting Goods store has been just a tick over average. The store’s owner, Denny Thomas, sells about any make of gun, ammo or knife, or he’ll order it for you.
“We have high-end shot guns back there, higher end shot guns, rifles, these are our semi-reloading handguns,” Thomas said.
At any time of year, he sells about four guns a day. Last week, he said that skipped up to five a day. But he said no occupiers have come in for bulk buys.
“We still have predominantly local shoppers, we get a few people coming in ‘cause they might need a pair of gloves, but other than that it’s been pretty normal,” he said.
The hot seller this week? Shotgun shells to ranchers. There’s a rabbit population boom this winter. People are blasting them to keep the hungry bunnies off their haystacks.
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