Town hall talk centers on forests, helping middle class

By Kelly Ducote, The Observer March 15, 2014 01:53 pm

Sen. Ron Wyden fields questions from constituents in a town hall meeting Saturday. (Kelly Ducote/The Observer)
Sen. Ron Wyden fields questions from constituents in a town hall meeting Saturday. (Kelly Ducote/The Observer)
The chair of the Senate Finance Committee promised constituents Saturday that he is working on ways to rebuild the middle class, with a special concern for federal forests and jobs in Oregon.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., spent about two hours with residents for a town hall meeting on the campus of Eastern Oregon University Saturday afternoon.

A hot topic of discussion revolved around security and privacy concerns, with the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, which this week has come under scrutiny for allegedly spying on senators and Senate staffers.

Wyden said the recent news about the CIA "gets to the heart" of the necessity for congressional oversight. Wyden, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has been a critic of NSA's collection of information and said during the town hall that citizen protections must be embedded in the law.

Brian Kelly, restoration director for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, raised a question about the future of the East Side Forest Bill. Wyden stressed that compromise was going to be part of enacting legislation.

"Nobody is going to everything (they) want," he said, adding that he is working to ensure Oregon does get everything it needs. The bill creates a pilot program for Oregon's east side forests to increase timber harvest and improve forest health.

In discussing forest policy, Wyden said the area also provides a chance to look at sustainable resources like carbon sequestration and biomass.

Sen. Wyden again referred to these efforts when a Pendleton resident brought up her concern about family wage jobs in Eastern Oregon. Increasing timber harvest — on top of investing in other areas like health care, transportation, renewable energy and agriculture — can serve as an economic multiplier for the area, he said.

"This is the ball game," he said. "This is really what I've been working on."

Lonnie Meyers of the American Legion asked about rumors of cuts to Veterans Affairs programs, while La Grande Mayor Daniel Pokorney had a question about potential military cuts. The Department of Defense announced in February that it is considering cutting the Army to its smallest size in since World War II.

"There's a lot of terrorism out there still," Pokorney said.

Wyden told Meyers he would fight against any cuts to VA programs and told Pokorney that those cuts have him concerned for the National Guard. Calling proposed reductions to the Guard "draconian," Wyden said such cuts would be a mistake.

The La Grande town hall marked Wyden's 691st town hall meeting. Wyden has served an an Oregon senator since 1996. Prior to that he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, first elected to Congress in 1980.