Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden arrived at Baker High School Tuesday afternoon ready to answer questions, but after one query the senator seemed more inclined to convene a committee or a task force.

The question was from Baker County Commissioner Bruce Nichols.

Nichols told Wyden, a Democrat who’s been representing Oregon in the Senate since 1996, that an effort to thin the forests in Baker City’s watershed to reduce the risk of fire is complicated in part because the 10,000-acre watershed is also a roadless area.

Wyden, who is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he believes a key to dealing with issues on public lands is to gather stakeholders from government agencies, the timber industry and the environmental community.

“Let’s get moving on this,” the senator said.

He called out from the audience Baker City Manager Fred Warner Jr., and Gerald Dixon, the acting deputy supervisor for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, which manages the forests in the city’s watershed.

Warner said that although city and Forest Service officials have “been working hard” on the watershed project — a task that Baker City Councilor Arvid Andersen has made a priority — “any nudge we could get, from the chief of the Forest Service, from you, would be helpful.”

Wyden seemed especially excited when Warner mentioned the Forest Service chief.

It turns out the senator is scheduled to meet this morning in Boise with acting Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen to talk about wildfires.

“I’ll ask Vicki Christiansen tomorrow to assign someone to work on the watershed issue,” Wyden said Tuesday.

His statement prompted widespread applause from the audience of about 125 in the Baker High School auditorium, many of them BHS students.

The watershed discussion wasn’t Wyden’s only opportunity to talk about federal forest and fire policies.

After a question from BHS student Kale Cassidy about ways to protect forests from fires, Wyden touted a new law, which he helped shepherd through the Senate, that ends the practice known as “wildfire borrowing.”

Over the past several years the Forest Service and other land managing agencies have had to divert tens of millions of dollars earmarked for fire prevention work to pay the bills for fighting massive wildfires across the West.

Wyden has long advocated for the federal government to instead treat large blazes as natural disasters, akin to hurricanes or floods, and to set aside money just for that purpose rather than raiding fire-prevention budgets.

He called the new law the “most meaningful change in forest policy in a decade.”

Wyden also told the Baker City audience that Christiansen plans to outline a plan to start addressing the backlog of forest thinning projects in Oregon.

The senator opened the nearly two-hour town hall by recognizing several students who have taken classes at the Baker Technical Institute and presenting them with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The students are Gabriel Rosales, Dawson Vanderwiele, Jacquelyn Sanders, Mason Tomac and Ray Soderholm.

Wyden took questions from both BHS students as well as local residents.

In response to a question from Julianne Williams of Baker City about possible cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Wyden acknowledged that President Trump’s proposed budget does include those cuts.

Wyden said he recently sponsored a bill, along with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, that makes it possible for more senior citizens to be cared for in their homes.

In response to a question from BHS student Hailey Sanders about how he balances representing rural and urban areas, Wyden acknowledged that he “loves Portland, but I am not a United States senator for the state of Portland. I represent every nook and cranny, every blade of grass in every corner of the state of Oregon.”

Wyden noted that about 20 percent of jobs in Oregon depend on international trade, and that includes the state’s multbillion-dollar agriculture and nursery industry.

“It’s what we grow, and where do we grow it? In rural Oregon,” he said.

He encouraged students, as they’re pondering their careers, to remember that they belong to a global economy.

Marshall McComb of Baker City pointed out that stagnant wages have harmed the American middle class, and he asked Wyden what he thinks Congress can do about income inequality.

Wyden said he promotes industries that pay above-average wages, citing as two examples the budding technology for drone aircraft, and the healthcare industry.

See more in the May 2, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.