ENTERPRISE — Thanks for his past work, forest, climate change, the Snake River dams — and the ever-increasing price of candy — were among the focuses of a Wallowa County virtual town hall held by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, on Tuesday, June 1, that was attended by more than 20 callers.

“My dad told me there used to be penny candy,” said one Enterprise sixth-grader. “Why is the price going up?”

Leave it to a sixth-grader to fluster a U.S. senator.

“I’ve never been asked about the price of candy, but you’re right, it goes up,” Merkley agreed.

He recalled similar stories from his mother of inexpensive goods during the Great Depression. Ultimately, he blamed it on inflation.

“There’s no such thing as penny candy anymore,” the senator agreed, saying inflation is now low and he doesn’t expect it to go up much.

“The good news is you won’t see (the) price of candy going up too much,” he said.

Introduced by Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash, who expressed the commission’s appreciation the work of Merkley and his fellow Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden in facilitating the moving of federal funds to the local level, Nash noted Merkley is an Oregon native who grew up the son of a millwright in a working-class environment. His approximately 40-year career in politics led to his being Oregon’s junior U.S. senator in 2009.

Merkley first introduced Maria Weer, executive director of Building Healthy Families of Enterprise, and congratulated her on the work BHF has done, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One questioner expressed his appreciation for Merkley opposing Trump administration efforts regarding climate change.

“I appreciate you’ve been outspoken. … We have no time to waste on climate change,” the caller said, adding he was particularly concerned about rules limiting the harvest of forests.

Merkley said more research is needed.

“We need guidance on the different types of forests. How do you combine multiple use of forests?” he said. “Carbon storage and forest resilience have to be part of that, as well as thinning. … All those pieces are part of the formulation.”

Stacy Green, of Enterprise, who heads the Mentor Match Teen Entrepreneurs program, asked if Merkley had any influence that could help provide funding for the teens.

Merkley admitted he hadn’t heard of the program, but has worked with other youth programs and would check with the federal Small Business Administration to see if funding could be made available.

“I’m looking for one of your students to appear on Shark Tank,” the senator joked.

County Commissioner John Hillock asked Merkley if he could streamline the difficulties local governments have in using the federal funds provided. Sometimes, Hillock said, the required deadlines make it impossible to use the funds in time. He mentioned a generator Wallowa Memorial Hospital is trying to get as an example.

Merkley said deadlines have repeatedly been extended and more along that line can be done.

Another youth asked the senator’s advice for young people in small towns.

Reflecting on his own background, Merkley recalled advice from his father.

“Really seize the opportunities provided by public schools,” Merkley said. His dad told him, “It’s up to you, how much you want to learn.”

He noted that college is not necessarily for everyone, as there are apprenticeship programs and community college programs available.

“Don’t be afraid of failure,” Merkley told the sophomore. “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried enough things.”

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