Once occupied and long closed to the public, the headquarters at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is finally back open – but with some new security measures in place.
The refuge headquarters re-opened last week, according to Brent Lawrence, public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though the visitor’s center (also known as the nature center) will remain closed until later this spring.
“It’s a public facility, it’s public lands and we welcome members of the public” to come visit, Lawrence said. “All things associated with it.”
That includes the sprawling desert wetlands – home of more than 320 species of migratory birds – as well as the armed occupation of its headquarters in Jan. 2016, an act that lasted 40 days and led to the arrest of 27 people. Since then, the headquarters has remained closed to the public, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cleaned up damage left by the occupiers.
Officials have also been busy installing new “Department of Interior-recommended security measures,” Lawrence said, which includes security cameras, additional fencing and some gates. It may also include the continued presence of refuge law enforcement officers, which have been stationed at the shuttered station since the end of the occupation.
In a visit this past September, I spotted an armed guard behind the closed gates of the headquarters, beyond a “refuge HQ closed” sign made of plywood. After a group of tourists pulled up and began asking about the occupation, the guard walked down to the gate and encouraged us all to leave.
Now the public is encouraged to return, and the timing couldn’t have worked out better. The annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival runs from April 6 to 9 at the refuge and in nearby Burns, and is sure to draw flocks of bird enthusiasts back to Malheur.
“I’m sure the birders will be very happy,” Lawrence said.