Find common ground on the forest floor.
Sen. Ron Wyden forcefully underscored that need, and possibility, during a town hall meeting Saturday at the Hood River County Courthouse.
Wyden made it clear he will fight for legislation to allow some logging in National Forests as a way of preventing forest fires and providing jobs for rural communities.
“We can’t afford to let this problem go unaddressed,” he said at the town hall, his 300th held in Oregon communities on a monthly basis.
Wyden also vowed to continue efforts on behalf of the Hood River pear industry, hearing grower Gary Willis tell him, “a lot of growers are struggling to survive.” Willis grows the pears that go into nutritional bars made by Gorge Delights, along with HR Mountain Sun. The Hood River and Wasco County-based enterprise got its start up last year with funding help from the United States Department of Agriculture.
“We will continue to do everything we can to support that effort,” Wyden said.
Willis noted that Gorge Delights has agreed to return six percent of revenue to the USDA for use in research and development by other agricultural start-ups.
“That’s the kind of thing we ought to look at as a federal policy to encourage healthy products,” Wyden said. “You’ve (Gorge Delights) got me pumped up before I came and now you’ve got me even more pumped,” he said.
Wyden said such economic diversification of local communities should be given higher priority by the Bush administration than nation-building elsewhere.
“We should constantly try to find multi-lateral, multi-national approaches where possible,” Wyden told a group of about 30 citizens who gathered in the Circuit Courtroom.
“We should rebuild Iraq with Iraqi oil money and meet our needs at home,” he said. “Iraq and Afghanistan are both American problems now,” Wyden said, following what he called “the work of our courageous troops.”
“We have great problems securing the peace for lack of responsible planning by the military, and we have tremendous needs here at home for schools, roads and affordable medical prescriptions,” Wyden said.
In light of that, Wyden spent most of his 90 minutes discussing forest restoration initiatives and other aspects of Oregon’s economic revival.
Wyden said “unnatural” forest conditions can largely be blamed for last year’s destructive wildfires throughout Oregon and other western states. He warned they could happen again without some form of thinning.
“These are not natural fires: these are fires caused by years of neglect,” he said. “We need to get going with some thinning programs and do it in such a way as to allow sensitivity to environmental values and yet get this material off the forest floor.”
He commended Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River, the Second District Republican, for his forest restoration bill.
“I’ve spent a lot of my waking hours trying to find a balanced approach to get this done. I’m not going to let Oregon communities get savaged because of neglect,” Wyden said.
(The proposed Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 — HR 1904 — co-authored by Walden and Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis, was passed by the House of Representatives on May 20 by a vote of 256 to 170, and was scheduled to be considered Thursday by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.)
Wyden expressed confidence that Congress can reach compromise legislation on forest restoration, and pointed to last year’s $1.6 billion county revenue legislation that brought $2.8 million to Hood River County payments. The federal payments replaced some of the timber receipts counties formerly received to pay for schools and other services.
“We surmounted impossible odds to get this written,” Wyden said. “It shows that bringing people together gets results.” And now, “it is extraordinarily important we get it renewed,” in three years, he said.
County Commission president Rodger Schock noted Hood River County’s timber past, and current 13 percent summer unemployment rate, telling Wyden: “Whatever it takes to get something through, get us back into the woods and let us provide some jobs.”
“Something will work,” Wyden said. “We will put together a bipartisan bill that will pass. I want to get something passed.”
Wyden said any forest bill must also preserve the court appeals process. He said he is “very strongly in favor” of retaining what is known as the right of “regular access” to legal appeals of logging sales.
“But there are also no rights to five-year delays,” he said. “We have to figure out a practical way between these two approaches. For example, the appeals must start when the process starts, not when it’s almost all the way done. We’re going to have to find common ground here.
“We hope to find a way to thread this needle,” Wyden said. “I’m going to do everything I can to get a bill passed this time around.” He pointed to the destructive Arizona fire that is out of control and has already claimed more than 12,500 acres of pine forest near Tucson.
“My pledge is to work closely with Greg Walden and Sen. (Gordon) Smith, Gov. Ted Kulongoski to keep the Oregon delegation together to get a bill on the president’s desk to protect our treasures and still deal with the economic concerns of rural communities,” Wyden said.