By Jayson Jacoby
Baker County residents peppered U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley with questions Tuesday that took the Democrat from their back yards to Capitol Hill to the factories of China.
A recurring theme during Merkley's 70-minute town hall meeting at the former North Baker Elementary School was possible federal protection for the sage grouse, and in particular how such protection could affect the beef cattle industry in the county.
Among the approximately 80 people who attended, several asked Merkley about this chicken-size bird that shares habitat with some of Baker County's most important public livestock grazing allotments.
Merkley actually had the first word on sage grouse, though.
In his opening remarks the senator said he helped secure $15 million for the BLM to look at ways to manage public land in 11 states, including Oregon, with a goal of convincing another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to make a decision in September 2015.
"This is a major local issue," Merkley said.
Sharon Dinger of Haines, who owns mineral rights to about 481 acres of BLM land near Unity, said the BLM's proposal to avoid an ESA listing could be a cure that's more harmful than the disease.
Dinger said the BLM's draft environmental impact statement (the public comment period for the draft EIS ends Thursday) designates that acreage as primary sage grouse habitat.
Dinger contends the land doesn't harbor any of the birds.
Even if the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't list sage grouse as threatened or endangered, the BLM habitat designation could make it difficult for her to either try to explore the property for potential gas, oil or other valuable deposits, or to sell the mineral rights, Dinger said.
"To me it's a power grab, to take away public land from the public," Dinger told Merkley. "I would like to see our Congress stand up and say look, we've been to these public meetings and 98 percent of the people say no, so it should be no. They don't own the land - we do."
Merkley deferred his answer to Don Gonzalez, who manages BLM's Vale District, which includes the property for which Dinger owns mineral rights.
Gonzalez said it might be possible to drill for oil and gas, even in sage grouse habitat, so long as the work didn't cause ground disturbance - for instance, if the drilling was done at an angle, starting at a point on the surface outside the sage grouse habitat.
Gonzalez also said the sage grouse habitat maps in the draft EIS could be "fine-tuned" before the final version of the management plan is finished.
Sam Bass of Baker City, a former Baker City Council member and mayor, told Merkley that if councilors "did the same things as Congress, we'd be out."
Bass criticized lawmakers for failing to listen to their constituents and not considering how bills affect people.
Bass also urged Merkley to "leave the gun control alone."
As to the latter issue, Merkley said the gun control issue is confined now to state legislatures, not Congress.
He mentioned specifically a bill the Oregon Legislature is considering that would expand the requirement for criminal background checks for gun buyers.
As for Bass' charge that Congress ignores the public, Merkley said he considers town hall meetings a crucial source of information about the successes, and failures, of federal laws.
"Legislators need to understand how these policies reverberate," Merkley said. "You keep what's working and you change what isn't."
Randy Joseph of Sumpter, who owns Baker County's only wind-power development, a six-turbine farm near Huntington, asked Merkley whether he believes America "can lead as we should" on reducing carbon pollution.
Merkley said he believes the problem is a serious one. He cited as examples warmer winters that have allowed tree-killing pine beetles to proliferate, further weakening forests harmed by persistent drought and making for more severe wildfires, as well as dwindling snowpacks that leave less water in rivers for fish and for irrigation.
Merkley also pointed out that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have made oceans more acidic, harming oyster beds along the Oregon Coast.
"These are very big deals affecting our rural economies," Merkley said. "Not since humans have walked this Earth have carbon dioxide levels been this high. We need to make a significant decrease in fossil fuel burning. It's a tough test and we're not getting very far on it."
Merkley did note, however, that over the past decade no developed country has reduced its carbon emissions more than the U.S.
In a follow up question Joseph asked about proposed increases in coal exports from America.
Merkley said he has called for a detailed study of the possible effects of those exports, both locally, in parts of Oregon where coal trains would run, as well as globally in terms of the amount of carbon released by burning the exported coal.
Steve Culley of Richland asked Merkley whether he believes America can achieve a "level playing field" in international trade.
Merkley said he's concerned about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), although he conceded that no one he knows has actually seen a copy of it.
Merkley said he is skeptical, though, that the U.S. can achieve a level playing field so long as countries such as China have much lower average wages and much less stringent environmental laws compared with the U.S.
He pointed out that America has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 1998.
"The question I'm asking, and that I don't know yet, is what is the TPP going to look like," Merkley said. "So far I haven't heard anything that gives me much encouragement that it's going to be a level playing field."
Another question involving China came from Kenneth Anderson, a retiring mining engineer from Baker City.
Anderson said he's concerned about a possible punitive tax on the mining of strategic minerals, which could give China an even bigger advantage in that realm.
Federal red tape that makes it difficult for miners to get permission to mine is hamstringing the industry as well, Anderson said.
"Our country is desperately hurting for these minerals," he said. "It could affect thousands of jobs."
Merkley said he wasn't aware of such a proposed tax but that he would check on it.
As for mining, he said China not only is adding to its own supply of strategic minerals, but it's buying stocks from other countries, including Afghanistan.
Merkley reiterated his disdain for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Citizens United case from 2010, which allowed unlimited spending from corporations for political purposes.
Marshall McComb of Baker City asked Merkley "is there anything we can do about it?"
Merkley said he has advocated, so far unsuccessfully, for federal legislation that would require corporations to publicly disclose all their donations.
As for a constitutional amendment prohibiting corporate spending on political campaigns, Merkley said "it is not going to happen any time soon."
Lynn Shumway of Bridgeport described Congress as "dysfunctional" and asked Merkley to name "one constitutional reason why Congress shouldn't begin impeachment" proceedings on President Barack Obama, whose administration, Shumway contends, is "riddled with scandals to where he makes Richard Nixon look like a saint."
Merkley said he agreed with Shumway's description of Congress.
Merkley contrasted that with the Senate when he worked as an intern for Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield in 1976.
"That Senate is completely gone," Merkley said.
As for impeachment, Merkley said he believes lawsuits will be filed challenging "the boundary Obama has set" regarding such matters as executive orders.
Merkley said he believes some of the president's actions are clearly constitutional, while others are open to interpretation.
"Jeff, I don't think you answered my question," Shumway said.