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Looking Back On Malheur: OPB’s Amanda Peacher

New charges were announced last week in connection with the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Harney County, Ore.

It is the latest turn of events in a saga that began last January, when armed militants took over the headquarters of the refuge – events that are documented in “41 Days,” a radio documentary from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Amanda Peacher is one of the reporters who worked on the project. She spent more than 30 days of the 41-day occupation in the town of Burns, Ore., but her first visit was in late December, before the occupation began on Jan. 2.

“I heard rumblings of so-called militia activity before the initial protest that led to the occupation,” she said. “So I went to Burns … to talk to folks about who these outsiders were, and how the local community felt about them.”

She spoke with KPLU’s Ed Ronco about her reporting.

Interview highlights:

On Robert “LaVoy” Finicum

“I came to know him a little bit being at the refuge almost every day during the course of the occupation. He would say hello, he would answer as many questions as they were comfortable on any given day answering. He was very kind to all of us reporters there. He genuinely felt devoted to his cause and felt like what he was doing, along with the rest of the occupation leaders was a righteous action.”

On frustration among locals:

“One of the things you hear from [Harney County rancher] Georgia Marshall is this frustration that the occupation happened in Harney County, which they consider to be a poster child for collaboration and coordination with federal agencies, after several decades of not such harmonious relationships. You hear in Georgia’s voice this angst and frustration and anger that ‘This happened here? Really?’”

On divisiveness:

“[Many locals] knew a federal worker, or they had a ranch, or they were related to sheriff maybe. You kind of had to put out your cards on the table and say where you stand on this, and a lot of people felt offended when their friends or family members took an opposite side.”

On covering the story:

“One of the things I tried to do throughout this occupation was not only look at what the occupiers were doing, but why they were doing it. While a lot of people said ‘Gosh, we wish you’d stop covering the actions of these criminals. If the media went away then none of this would be interesting anymore.’ I found it very interesting that these people would come from so far away to live in a strange place in 12-degree weather. Understanding why they were frustrated and what brought them here is a big part of the story. I will say I got some flak for that from OPB’s audience because they felt like stories that humanize criminals were not appropriate for our air. But I feel like it gives more depth to our coverage.”

Listen to “41 Days,” from Oregon Public Broadcasting here.

OPB continues to cover the aftermath of the standoff. You can keep up on the latest coverage here.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.