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Road closure foes take to the street
Council chambers at Baker City Hall overflowed with people on Saturday afternoon as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden hosted a town hall meeting.
As was the case last week when Oregon’s other U.S. senator, Jeff Merkley, visited Baker City, most of the inquiries for Wyden — and some frustrated periods of venting — were about the recently announced Travel Management Plan (TMP) for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Anger about the TMP — which will ban motorized vehicles (except snowmobiles) from about 3,600 miles of roads on 1.3 million acres that are open now — has spread across Northeastern Oregon and other parts of the state over the past month.
Opponents gathered Saturday morning to march through Baker City, many of them holding signs protesting the TMP.
Many members of the group attended Wyden’s town hall meeting later in the day.
“We feel betrayed,” Jan Kerns, chair of the Baker County Natural Resource Advisory Committee, told Wyden. Her husband, Tim Kerns, is a Baker County commissioner. Jan Kerns cited motorized access to irrigation diversion dams as just one issue related to the TMP that “needs serious discussion.”
Jan Kerns said she and other volunteers worked hard to give the Wallowa-Whitman information about how forest roads are being used in Baker County.
But the TMP that Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach announced seems not to have taken the volunteers’ work into account.
As a result, Kerns said, they are finding it “hard to keep people motivated when government doesn’t listen.”
People with questions and comments about the plan are being asked to quickly get them to their county representatives. Baker County’s representative is Commissioner Fred Warner Jr.
Forest Service officials and representatives from Baker, Union and Wallowa counties will meet this week to talk about specific issues and concerns. Then the county officials will report back with the answers.
“They will go item by item,” Wyden said.
A member of Wyden’s staff will monitor the progress by attending the meetings.
Though a Wallowa County official suggested the idea to Wyden, Warner is willing to give it a try.
However, “we need to look at legislation. Enough is enough,” Warner said as the crowd burst into applause. “Everybody wants to protect (our forests) but we can’t protect them to death.”
“It just struck me as an approach that potentially has an upside. I couldn’t see much of a downside,” Wyden said about the idea.
This effort could “magnify” individual opponents’ voices — which would make it a good way to potentially influence decision making.
Wyden agreed with Warner that laws governing the forests need to be reviewed and potentially changed.
“Stop it or give us six months to straighten this out,” said Philip Scheler, who wondered what could be accomplished in a week after the plan has been in the works for five years.
He wasn’t the only person in the room who voiced this opinion.
“This is happening all over the country,” Wyden said of TMPs being created for national forests across the nation since the U.S. Forest Service in 2005 embarked on a campaign to deal with motorized recreation. “We’re going to stay at it until we’ve got common ground. I’ve heard and seen how angry people are with this process and I want to help fix this,” Wyden said.
“With these guys you have to fight … just a week?” Scheler asked Wyden. “What’s it going to cost you to give us a month?”
“That may well be appropriate,” Wyden said, but also pointed out that in a week “we’ll know what’s going to happen. There will be an account of all items we’ve heard raised.”
With users of the forest cut off from motorized travel to many areas, the Forest Service is “forcing us” closer together to hunt, gather wood, pick huckleberries and do other things. This could result in conflicts, pollution and other damage to the land and potential danger to people, said Carrie Matthews.
“It’s wrong. It’s a bunch of crap. We weren’t only ignored — we were flat-out denied. We’re pretty ticked off. Someone made a decision to start it. Someone can stop it,” Matthews said.
“Our town is at great jeopardy,” said Teresa Brown, a member of the Halfway City Council. “You’re taking our legacy away.”
Brown provided details about the conflicts in forest management that are affecting people who rely on the land. One example: They were told there was a need to preserve the elk habitat but then “you bring in wolves to kill them off.”
“They’re carrying off our dogs,” she said.
Closing roads makes people have to walk farther and risk being in life-or-death situations with wolves — albeit far away from the safety of being inside of their vehicles.
“I can’t outrun them. What the heck am I supposed to do?” she asked. ‘You can’t shoot ’em.”
Although the discussion focused on the TMP, Wyden also highlighted another Wallowa-Whitman project — the Snow Basin plan, which calls for five timber sales, totaling 48 million board-feet of logs, over the next five years.
Wyden touted the project, which is in eastern Baker County north of Richland, as a way to improve forest health.
Forest Service officials estimate that Snow Basin would create 80 jobs: 46 in harvesting and 34 in noncommercial forest thinning.
The project would override an 18-year policy of the Forest Service not cutting live trees larger than 21 inches in diameter in Eastern Oregon national forests. Most of the larger trees cut are grand firs.
Wyden, who has introduced legislation designed to increase logging in national forests east of the Cascades, said he hopes the Snow Basin plan is implemented with little or no difficulty and asked that anyone seeking to appeal it contact his office first to discuss why.
Several people with mining interests addressed Wyden on Saturday. The TMP is one more thing among a variety of use and access issues making it difficult to mine in Baker County, local miners say.
“In our zeal to protect our environment we’ve regulated our country out of business,” said Kenneth Anderson. “All new wealth comes from the ground.”
Anderson also said that mining is the “most important industry in the world.”
Wyden said that mining would be the next issue to consider after the TMP.
Those who questioned the draft environmental impact statement in 2009 are eligible to repeat the process and appeal pertinent contents of the final Travel Management Plan. This needs to be done by April 30.
Mike Ragsdale, an organizer of the protest walk and gathering that drew about 200 people total, also serves on the county’s Natural Resource Advisory Committee.
“Who has standing? As far as I’m concerned everybody has standing,” Ragsdale said after the town hall meeting.
He described Saturday’s protest as the “new walk of tears.”
Many of the same faces visible in the crowd Saturday also were seen at the Baker City town hall held last week by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, which was preceded by an opponents’ strategy session as well.
Other issues that came up during Wyden’s town hall included Medicare, the federal budget, the economy and political campaign financing.
Suzanne Moses of Baker City commented about the large amount of money sent to political campaigns as well as the existence of money coming from “undisclosed sources.”
“How do we get out of this situation?” she asked the senator.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision about the Citizens United case, which extended personal election funding rules to corporations and allowed copious amounts of campaign money to be amassed and spent without identifying donors, “took the hinges off the doors of democracy,” Wyden said.
The latest version of the DISCLOSE Act includes an extension of the “Stand by your ad” provision written by Wyden and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
It requires any organization or Super PAC that spends at least $10,000 on campaign activities to report that spending to the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours and to file a new report for each additional $10,000 spent, according to Wyden’s website.
He’d also like to see a limit on the amount of time spent campaigning. This might require a change in the House and Senate rules so incumbents are regulated.
Wyden suggested that people ask candidates for state and federal offices what issue (or issues) they’d most willingly work with members of the opposing party to do something about.
Before the meeting began a woman was passing out fliers. One had a picture of a pack of wolves. Underneath the picture it said “Thanks USFS for dinner!”
“Please Don’t ruin Eastern Oregon. We were just coming back from the recession and you want to take away one of our best resources? We don’t want a bail out … just leave our land alone.”