Rock Creek

A reach of Rock Creek, which flows down the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains west of Haines, is among the streams proposed for designation under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Congressman Cliff Bentz during a five-minute floor speech in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 11, expressed opposition to a bill that would designate thousands of miles of streams in Oregon as protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Bentz, the only Republican member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, represents the Second Congressional District, which includes all of the state east of the Cascades.

Another Oregon lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, introduced the River Democracy Act last year.

The bill, in its current version, would add about 4,700 miles of rivers and streams to those protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

There would be a one-mile-wide corridor along each reach. That’s twice the usual width for such designations, Bentz noted in his floor speech.

Bentz, who was sworn in as a congressman in January 2021, cited concerns expressed by county commissioners in the 20 counties in his district. That includes Baker County Commission Chairman Bill Harvey, who in an April 2021 letter to the editor to the Baker City Herald, wrote that the River Democracy Act could increase the risk of wildfires along the designated streams by limiting or prohibiting logging and other work designed to reduce the fire threat.

Bentz, in his floor speech, warned that if the River Democracy Act becomes law, rivers and streams could be placed “in a bureaucratic wasteland where it will take years, if not decades, to initiate and then complete plans that may or may not allow the treatment activities needed right now.”

Bentz argued that the River Democracy Act’s proposed method of reducing wildfire risk — lighting controlled blazes to lower fuel loads — is a “dangerous” approach if it’s not preceded by removing trees.

“Prescribed burning before thinning puts at extreme risk the very rivers and watersheds the designation is supposed to protect,” Bentz said. “The overwhelming majority of my 62 county commissioners have serious and unanswered concerns about the dangers the act presents.”

Bentz also criticized the way that Wyden went about compiling a list of potential stream and river segments.

“The approach the bill’s sponsors used in developing this bill was seriously flawed because river and stream nominations were solicited from various groups and the general public without any clear legal or scientific analysis to identify those rivers, streams, and creeks that would qualify as scenic,” Bentz said during his floor speech. “If a scientific or legal analysis exists, the sponsors should share it.”

According to Wyden, the River Democracy Act was developed based on more than 15,000 nominations from 2,500 Oregonians.

Wyden said the River Democracy Act would not limit uses of private property, nor would it prohibit thinning and other forest-restoration work on public land within the one-mile corridor.

He said the bill also would require land management agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to assess wildfire risks in each wild and scenic river corridor.

Wyden’s website includes a list of testimonials from elected officials, business owners and residents in Oregon who support the bill.

The list includes Mike Higgins, a farmer and retired science teacher from Halfway, who wrote: “As a fifth-generation eastern Oregonian I’m a strong supporter of Oregon’s clean wild rivers. I applaud Senator Wyden for his leadership and vision in thinking about protecting our clean drinking water sources and the lifeblood of our wildlands as wild and scenic rivers. This is a gift to our children and their children for generations to come.”

In a response to Bentz's floor speech, Wyden's office sent a written statement to the Herald: "Sadly, it appears Congressman Bentz has not read Senator Wyden's River Democracy Act. The bill text clearly states how wildfire management would be strengthened and increased. Specifically, the bill requires the agencies implement a fire risk reduction plan across a half-mile corridor on either side of the river. The proposal does nothing to impede the ability to fight fires. In fact, it requires land managers to take proactive steps to reduce wildfire risks to homes and businesses, and make these rivers safety corridors.

"Senator Wyden remains committed to working with individual Oregonians who want to make constructive suggestions in good faith. That’s what he’s been doing for more than two years through multiple levels of outreach including public open-to-all meetings, dozens of one-on-one staff meetings with county commissioners, along with requests for comment from the Association of Oregon Counties before the legislation was introduced. Congressman Bentz should have the same level of commitment to his constituents, rather than opposing clean drinking water and working to weaken fire protections that ultimately threaten the lives of Oregonians."

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