I’m a retired Forest Service employee with decades of experience writing environmental documents about Wallowa County. I’m uniquely qualified to understand what Sen. Ron Wyden’s River Democracy Act means for our county. When a batch of rivers were designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1988, I helped write river management plans and later formed projects to comply with those plans.

I can readily state that Wild and Scenic River designations will further limit logging, fuels reduction, livestock grazing, recreation and public access on public lands, despite the senator’s claim to the contrary. For the private lands that get swept up into Wild and Scenic designation, landowners will see limits on how they manage their own property. This bill will destabilize our already shaky agriculture and farm-based economy, not at first, but incrementally over time in ways that we’ll only recognize in the rearview mirror.

The River Democracy Act is promoted as protection for our important water resources. We all love the idea of clean water, but how much protection is enough? Because of our already intact and healthy streams, Wallowa County is home base for many threatened and endangered ocean-going and resident fish. We have so much habitat, that more and more of it goes unoccupied. Despite ambitious hatchery programs, a dwindling number of ocean-going fish survive their trip to the ocean and back.

Fewer and fewer even make it back to the first dam at Bonneville. Fisheries biologists now talk about extirpation for several fish runs, which means extinction is on the horizon. Meanwhile, the resident fish populations of Wallowa County are stable. The problem is not Wallowa County water quality — something’s happening downstream.

I outlined many concerns about the bill in a letter to the senator, but my letter was never acknowledged. So I attended the Senate Natural Resource subcommittee video hearing on this proposed bill. The senator described the process used to form this bill as a way for citizens in his faraway state to participate in Washington, D.C., government through the internet. He named it The Oregon Way. I’ve concluded that The Oregon Way is just a means for the laptop class to force legislation on an unsuspecting working class. Here’s how it appears to work.

In October 2019, the senator announces an opportunity to nominate streams as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Done without a lot of fanfare, and no one objects to the idea of adding streams to the Wild and Scenic system because they don’t hear about it. He claims to compile and whittle down the nominations, although he won’t substantiate that claim now with any evidence.

He reads a draft bill into the Senate record in February 2021, which is the first alert to rural counties that substantial portions of public and private land are subject to this bill. He holds a Senate hearing and recruits one enthusiastic supporter with a side-hustle as a livestock operator to speak for the entire grazing industry and repeatedly amplifies her statements of support with “and she’s a rancher!”

After the hearing, his staffers go through the motions of talking with those in opposition, but change nothing in the bill. The senator hosts a video conference to supposedly listen to opposing opinions, but only the preapproved are allowed to speak, most of whom support the bill. Anyone daring to question the bill in the online chat session gets swarmed by bill supporters.

Such is Sen. Wyden’s Oregon Way. Even more alarming is that he told the Senate subcommittee that he plans to use this process on future legislation.

Residents often share that they enjoy Wallowa County for its high-quality environmental resources and for its family-friendly communities. Without natural resource-based jobs, our family friendly communities wither. Sen. Wyden’s bill is unraveling the very fabric of Wallowa County that its residents hold dear.

For those of you who support this bill because it promises to give us clean, cool water, you might pause and consider whether we already have clean, cool water. You might be advocating for a bill that will incrementally improve water quality at the price of our family-owned farms, tree farms and ranches that are an integral part of our custom and culture. Dissolved family farms are usually taken over by trophy homes, corporate farming or government land acquisition. Is this the future you want for Wallowa County?

I thank our county commissioners who see the risks and are informing the senator and his staff that Wallowa County wants none of its streams included in the River Democracy Act. I also question Sen. Wyden’s intentions and want no part of his perverse distortion of representative government that he calls The Oregon Way.

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Alicia Andrus was attracted to Wallowa County for the scenery and has stayed 40 years for the people. She’s retired from her Forest Service job as a planner and her private practice as a land surveyor.

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