Merkley Holds Town Hall in Vale

Merkley Holds Town Hall in Vale


By:  Ellen Morris Bishop

About 100 people filled the newly refurbished South Fork Grange Hall in Losting on friday morning to participate in U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley’s 407th town hall meeting. Prior to his public meeting, Merkley spent about 30 minutes listing to and taking with local leaders, including representatives of county government, law enforcement, tribal government and officials and others. The issues discussed included forest management, the 21-inch rule, timber logs (Sen. Merkley pointed to stewardship agreements, which are bolstered in his Wildfire-Resistant Communities Act), the Owyhee wilderness plan, the Snake River dams, restoring fish populations, and difficulty recruiting folks for the District Attorney’s office in Wallowa County.

At his town Hall meetings, Merkley recognizes a local organization for its community work. On Friday, he presented a U.S. Flag to the South Fork Lostine Grange board of Directors.

Audience questions rangedwidelgy across the political spectrum. Several people brought up the need for resolution--and breaching — of the four Lower Snake River dams. Merkley’s response was cautious and muted, but he said he was open to learning more about that issue.

Overcoming the East-side/West-side divisions and animosity also came up, especially in the context of the rising Greater Idaho movement. One of most animated portions of the town hall followed question by Lostine resident John Pollard about why people in rural Oregon didn’t recognize and appreciate the fact that the money for many state services and infrastructure, including roads and schools, came from the west side as well as the east side, along with federal funding.

Merkley also talked about his upcoming wildfire initiative bill and efforts to allocate more funds for treatments, including thinning and to a lesser extent, prescribed burning, that will reduce fire risks. undergrowth and ladder fuels in crowded and over-grown forests. Merkley wants more funds allocated to fuels reduction. He said that he thought reducing fuel loads would save more in the long term, rather than devoting massive amounts of USFS budget dollars and federal assistance to fighting wildfires in a tinderbox.

Due to an ever more chaotic climate, the risk of severe and catastrophic fires only grows. In 2017, 71,500 wildfires burned 10 million acres nationwide, the second-largest figure on record in terms of acreage burned. In 2018, nearly 9 million acres burned. The problem is the Forest Service lacks the funding and the boots on the ground to implement badly need fuels reduction projects.

Year after year, fire suppression eats up more and more of the Forest Service’s budget and personnel. Between 1998 and 2016, the number of Forest Service fire personnel grew by over 6,000 employees. At the same time, the number of employees for other critical work, like planning timber sales, thinning projects, trail maintenance, decreased by 7,000. The result: Less resources for proactive forest management and a multi-million acre backlog of projects.

Merkly, in a press release noted that communities have been threaten by increasingly severe wildfires. “Even communities not directly impact by flames were inundated with smoke. We must do more to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes. We can accomplish this by investing in more fuels reduction, empowering local communities, and expanding opportunities to collaborate.”

Merkley’s proposed Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would create economic opportunities in forest- dependent communities while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires by:

• Creating a $1 billion fund to provide stability and allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire reduction projects.

• Empowering federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires.

• Permanently reauthorizing the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and allows more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year.

• Creating a County Stewardship Fund that would provide payments to counties equal to 25% of stewardship contract receipts on federal land within their counties.

Merkley departed for his next town hall in Elgin around 10 a.m with lots of questions still on people’s minds. However, he noted that this had been one of the most philosophical and least contentions town hall meetings he has done recently.