Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

By Terri Harber


Up to 250 people attended U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's Town Hall meeting on Wednesday.

The event was held at Baker High School and many of those who attended were students - primarily juniors and seniors in government, economics and social studies classes.

"We were taking advantage of the moment," said Gwen O'Neal, the vice principal at BHS.

At least one teacher worked with students on formulating questions to pose to Wyden, a Democrat from Portland.

These efforts were apparent as groups of students came and went. Some were interested enough in the goings-on to stay until the end - even though they weren't required to be there once their class was over.

"The senator doesn't dodge questions," said Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners.

Warner's wife, Cammy, is a teacher at the high school. His remarks were directed to the students as well as to any adults who hadn't ever been to this type of political event.

He talked about when Wyden came here in April 2012. Hundreds of people jammed into the council chamber at Baker City Hall and most were angry about the Travel Management Plan created for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. It had been released to the public only a few weeks before.

An anti-Travel Management Plan parade was held earlier the same day.

The town hall went on for hours and Wyden kept listening to distraught residents. Afterward, he and his staff started trying to resolve the problem.

As a result of these efforts the plan "has been shelved," Warner said.

Wyden described that meeting area as "wall-to-wall" with concerned residents.

"People said (the U.S. Forest Service) will jam it down out throats. I said 'not so fast'."

However, he also pointed out that local "citizen involvement made a difference."

Current concerns

Wyden said a primary focus should be keeping guns away from people with mental health problems when one teen, Ty Gassin, asked about gun control.

A thorough background check system would "protect the Second Amendment rights of Americans who are mentally competent."

He also wants to see legislation enacted that curtails straw purchases of guns - that's when someone with a clean record buys a gun for someone else who wouldn't be able to pass a background check.

"We have to do things different," he said.

Proposals would require careful consideration that would ban or restrict the purchase and ownership of such products as assault weapons and magazines that hold large numbers of rounds, he said.

Widespread availability of high-capacity magazines appears to be more resolvable and controllable through proper legislation.

If Adam Lanza, the man who carried out the Newtown massacre, "stopped to reload, then some of those kids might be alive today," Wyden contends.

After a resident again brought up gun control, Wyden said that the Second Amendment comes with rights and responsibilities.

For example, the First Amendment highlights every citizen's freedom of speech but is interpreted to restrict some actions that could cause danger to others.

Someone standing in a crowded theater "can't shout 'Fire! Fire! Fire!' " Wyden said.

Another student, Dulcie Nelson, asked what the senator thought about the legalization of marijuana.

Wyden has concerns about legalizing marijuana, especially about its effect on the health of young people.

"I'm not there yet," he said. "But I'm willing to keep listening."

Wyden said he's in favor of lifting restrictions on the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp, however.

He was shopping with his wife, Nancy, when they saw hemp hearts for sale. Nancy was pregnant at the time and the couple had heard the shelled seeds were beneficial for expectant and lactating women.

That farmers in Canada, for instance, could grow hemp and make a profit on such items while American farmers aren't allowed to do the same "is crazy," Wyden said.

In February he joined with Oregon's other U.S. senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, as well as Sen. Rand Paul and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, (both R-Ken.) to introduce the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013.

Oregon allows industrial hemp production, but farmers must obtain a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration or face possible raids and seizures of their crop by federal agents.

Gracie Hardy, also a student, asked Wyden about tuition assistance for military members that was temporarily stopped due to the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

Wyden said both houses of Congress voted to continue the tuition program.

Officials viewed cuts to the program as "unfair," he said. They instructed the military to make reductions from other programs instead.

Connor Yates, also a student, asked about how the federal government could foster science education and improve the outlook of related industries.

Wyden wants to highlight education and research and make these areas more of a funding priority. It would pay off in the future by fostering growth in these industries and provide more jobs, he said.

Oregon is a leader in nanotechnology, which he explained is "the science of small stuff."

Another teen asked him about his stand on Internet regulation.

Wyden said he was against PIPA, the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (Protect IP), and SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act.

He worked to persuade other legislators that these bills wouldn't be good for the future of the Internet - a tool that young people most heavily rely on - because they would jeopardize Internet security and free speech.

These earlier Senate proposals would have given copyright holders the ability to censor websites accused of copyright infringement.

Teens also asked Wyden about such topics as agriculture, gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, and other education issues, including student loans.

Stephani Rasmussen, a teacher at the Baker Web Academy, asked Wyden what he would say to youths who want to know "why they should care about politics and government."

"If you decide to sit it out, someone else is going to make decisions for you," Wyden said.

He did admit, however, that he wouldn't have enjoyed a senator's town hall meeting when he was back in high school, when he spent a good amount of time consumed with "basketball."

Other questions during Wednesday's event focused on such things as how far local governments must go to ensure their drinking water is safe; the request for the return of a portion of Secure Rural Schools funding to the feds; and the effect on the economy of The Dodd-Frank Act, which ushered in an array of financial industry regulations in response to risk-taking that helped cause the recession.

At the end, Wyden said that some of the questions asked by teens were as good as those one might hear on "Meet The Press."