By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
HAINES Clearly enjoying a loud ovation from a crowd of more than 100 at Haines Heritage Park Wednesday, U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said he felt a little like a rock star.
andquot;Good,andquot; said his sidekick for the event, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, in his signature baritone. andquot;I'll sing the low notes.andquot;
The two fielded questions that 4-H members took from the crowd after attendees had spent nearly an hour eating homemade ice cream and cookies and the elected officials had pressed the flesh with their constituents.
The questions ranged from the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance to this summer's unusually severe fire season.
Walden, whose Second Congressional District includes Sour Biscuit fire communities in the Illinois Valley, said the andquot;terrible loss occurring in American forests due to over-regulation and litigationandquot; is the foremost issue for him, even while he's andquot;vacationingandquot; during Congress' summer recess.
andquot;Maybe out of these catastrophic fires will come the seeds of change,andquot; he said. andquot;It's a tragedy to have so much fiber out there acting like cans of gasoline. If you love your forests, don't let them burn. Let's clean them up.
andquot;We've always had fires, but we don't need to have these catastrophic, wait-'til-the-fall-rains fires.andquot;
Both men praised the work of a Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who has proposed emergency thinning of the forests in the Black Hills in his state.
andquot;We (Senate Republicans) made the determination to let him, and we intend to use the same process,andquot; Smith said. andquot;What's good for his hills is good for ours, too.andquot;
The senator from Pendleton said the government needs to be a part of a prescription drug benefit for seniors, whether the solution comes from the private sector or the public.
He said the Senate plan failed by one vote to go to a conference committee, where it would have been reconciled with a bill already passed by the House.
Walden said his own mother-in-law faces paying $1,000 per month just for one drug she needs.
andquot;That's an enormous cost, but it's the price we pay for these miracles in a bottle,andquot; drugs that allow patients to avoid what were once costly hospital stays, he said.
Both men said they were eager for Idaho Power Company to issue its draft report as part of the company's relicensing process for dams along the Snake River. The report is due next month.
andquot;Those hydroelectric dams produce no global warming and they're safe and reliable,andquot; Smith said. andquot;Put me down as a friend of Brownlee.andquot;
Walden noted how important the reservoir was to Baker County's economy.
andquot;I've conveyed your concerns to Idaho Power,andquot; he said.
Some causes have little hope
Neither official held out much hope for reinstating passenger rail service to the region nor for congressional funding for the Pacific Northwest Law Enforcement Training Center.
andquot;(Rail service) is a tough case, and it doesn't look good,andquot; Smith said. andquot;Passenger rail service needs a taxpayer subsidy, and the question is at what level will we continue to support it. It's in grave danger of collapsing.andquot;
He said that although PNWLETC is andquot;a good idea by your local officials,andquot; local and state officials would have to come together for Congress andquot;to feel like we can fund it.andquot;
Walden was even more succinct.
andquot;It's difficult enough to get a project like this through when everyone is behind it,andquot; he said. andquot;When there's dissension and in-fighting, it's virtually impossible.andquot;
Pledge of Allegiance
Both said it was time to create a new circuit court of appeals after a panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled and later stayed its ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance's andquot;one nation, under Godandquot; segment made the pledge unconstitutional.
andquot;Does the government need to be hostile to religion in order to make it separate from religion?andquot; Smith asked. andquot;The Supreme Court has said it's permissible for government to accommodate religious feelings so long as it doesn't establish a church. George Washington added, 'so help me God' when he took his first oath of office. That's a heritage that has produced a pretty great land.andquot;
Smith said he believed that the new trade authority that Congress recently gave President George W. Bush will open foreign markets previously closed to area farmers and ranchers.
andquot;He's made it clear that he has the authority now and he's ready to talk trade, but it's got to be fair,andquot; Smith said. andquot;He's laid down the markers: if you want to be hooked up to the great engine of America, you can, if you're fair.andquot;
Smith cautioned parents to be aware of their children's school curriculum, particularly their environmental lessons.
He said during his first senate campaign six years ago, his son asked his dad while he was shaving one morning if, after he was elected, he could andquot;get them to stop cutting timber.andquot;
andquot;After I cut myself, I asked him where he'd learned that, and he said in school.
andquot;It disturbed me that he would learn other than that trees are our most abundant natural resource.andquot;
Smith said it became a andquot;teachable momentandquot; as he took his young son on a tour of their home, showing him all the things made of wood.
andquot;Those who come to you in the name of the environment, understand that they are talking about shutting down the economy,andquot; he told the crowd in Haines. andquot;We need to teach some basic economic lessons to our children.andquot;