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Senator sees need for permanent timber policies fix
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley stopped in La Grande on his way to Wallowa County on Wednesday, meeting with the Observer’s editorial board and making comments on issues of local and national importance.
Merkley (D-Portland) said he and colleagues including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Portland) and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) continue the fight for an extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.
The bill, also known as the county payments bill, is due to sunset, taking away large chunks of federal revenue from timber-dependent counties.
Union County, for example, would lose about $650,000 of funds for roads and schools this year if the bill is not renewed.
Merkley said he and others have managed to get an amendment extending county payments into the federal transportation bill now being considered for passage. He said the extension represents a “bridge to next year.”
“I think if we can get the transportation bill passed it (county payments) will stay in. It’s only a one-year bridge that gets us to the point where hopefully the economy is better,” he said.
Merkley added, though, that he sees a need for a permanent fix for federal government policies on timber harvest and forest health.
“The hope is we will have a different framework for the future. Failure to have a sustainable harvest plan is good if you like diseased forests,” he said.
Merkley also talked about the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s Travel Management Plan that was pulled this spring following a firestorm of protest.
He said he believes Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach did the right thing in withdrawing the plan pending more pubic comment.
“I held town halls and I communicated the concerns I heard to the Forest Service,” Merkley said. “I think Monica got the message that the process was flawed and we need to go back to the drawing board. I think pressing the reset button was very helpful.”
In 2005, the federal government’s Travel Management Rule was developed to establish consistency about where and when motorized vehicle use is permissible on national forests, and to resolve user and resource issue conflicts. The Wallowa-Whitman plan was written as a requirement of the rule.
Environmental concerns, including the La Grande-based Hells Canyon Preservation Council, wanted more road closures, saying there’s a need to improve fish and game habitat and increase roadless recreational opportunities.
But other groups and individuals said closures proposed in the local plan unfairly restricted a host of traditional activities including camping, hiking, berry-picking, woodcutting, all-terrain vehicle-riding and more.
Hundreds of local people registered strong objections about closures included in the plan.
“I think the Forest Service was caught off guard by the amount of concern raised about the traditional uses,” Merkley said.
On a national issue, Merkley talked about the need for tighter regulation of the oil industry, and the need for energy independence.
“We’re spending more than $1 billion a year on overseas oil,” he said.
He said he is frustrated by the lack of movement on regulatory proposals that could bring energy costs down.
“The question is, how do you get the regulator to act when he won’t do what you’ve laid out for him?” he said.
The senator said he looks forward to a future where vehicles are more energy efficient, travel options are increased and infrastructure is improved, and alternative transportation fuels are developed.
Also during his visit, Merkley talked about ways the national debt can be reduced. An end to the war in Afghanistan would be a good start, he said.
“We’re spending $120 billion a year on the war. We could take one third of that and spend it on deficit reduction, a third for infrastructure and a third for education. It would be a big help,” he said.
He added he would like to see certain tax loopholes closed and the money spent on those three things also.
Merkley also talked about reform of congressional rules related to the filibuster. He said the minority in Congress is increasingly using filibuster to force super-majority votes.
“Before, the Senate operated on a simple majority. Very few times did someone object to a simple majority vote,” Merkley said. “With super majority, you take the path of the minority rather than the wisdom of the majority,” he said.