Oregon forests as infrastructure? One-on-one with Oregon’s junior senator

May 5-U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley stopped by (in COVID-19 virtual format) to sit down with The World before his annual Coos County town hall Wednesday.

We asked the Myrtle Creek native and third-term Democratic senator for his insight on a few of the major issues in Washington. He talked about jobs, forests, bipartisanship and a few key bills he hopes to help carry through an evenly divided senate.

Here’s what we learned. (Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

The World: There’s a lot going on in congress. What are the top issues you’re supporting right now?

Jeff Merkley: “Well, first, we want to make sure that the funds from the COVID Act get distributed. Because those are going to help out our cities or counties, it puts shots in people’s arms, it puts checks in their pocket, and it’ll just help rebuild the economy from the ground up.”

“The upcoming business is the American Jobs Act, a massive infrastructure bill. And this can be really significant in traditional infrastructure in the sense of jetties, dikes, roads, bridges, but also infrastructure we didn’t even know existed 25 years ago, like broadband, the importance of high bandwidth broadband to every house in America.”

“That bill also, I’m hoping we’ll look at some other forms that haven’t been thought of as infrastructure. Like forests, forests are part of infrastructure. And we know that with climate chaos, they’re burning. And we have to do things to thin them, to mow them, to do prescribed burns to make them more fire resilient. And the good part of that is it creates jobs, jobs in the woods jobs in the trucks jobs in the mills.”

TW: When most people think about “infrastructure,” they’re probably thinking about roads and bridges. How can we think about our forests as infrastructure? Is support for Oregon forests already included in President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan?

JM: “I’m working to get it added. I mean, the President is just now laying out his plans. But I think it’s really important to seize this moment. Think here in Oregon, we already have over 2 million acres that have been approved for thinning to make the woods more fire resilient. They’ve gone through the environmental checks, now we just need the money to get the jobs done. And we saw last September, horrific, horrific fires.

“And if you want to look at this from a health perspective, well Not only the direct impacts, but all those particles in the air are really bad for people’s health breathe in it, if you want to look at it from a, from a climate perspective, it puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the air when the when the timber burns. So, so whether it’s the just emergency protection, better forest stands for ecosystem, better forest stands for timber, less air pollution in terms of fine particles, less carbon dioxide, it’s a win all the way around to treat this infrastructure – and I want to keep calling it infrastructure — to treat our forest infrastructure with much better forest management.”

TW: What’s your approach to working with local leaders in communities that might appear to be the politically opposite to you?

JM: “When it comes to fighting for the success of small business, the success of our small towns, I’m all in, and I have taken my town halls very seriously. And very good ideas are produced at those town halls that are very relevant to the success of folks across Oregon. And an example is water projects. I’m pushing really, really hard now for small towns to have much larger grants to help with clean water supply and wastewater treatment comes up in just county after county after county.”

“So when you could have people moved to your town, or company moved to your town, but there’s no broadband and we need to get broadband, we need to make sure the rural post office stays open. I mean, it’s just a hell of a lot of issues that are about the fundamentals of thriving communities. And I’m immersed fighting for those things. And I know I think when you’re doing that any party affiliation goes out the window, let’s just work together get it done.”

TW: You were in the capitol building on January 6, when rioters breached the building and stopped the counting of Electoral College votes. Do you feel like the country or congress have healed from that time?

JM: “Well, it does feel like January 6 was a long time ago. And it feels like the impeachment trial was a long time ago. We’re now into the first 100 days of a new presidency, and a whole new set of issues and wrestling successfully to pass the American Rescue Plan. But now the Jobs Plan and the Family Plan and the For the People Act. So things move forward.”

“We still have fences up around the Capitol, we still have troops in camouflage patrolling, we still have threats. So it’s not like it’s gone. But inside this building, we’re working on the new set of legislation.”

TW: The president is giving the first joint address to congress of his presidency tonight. Is there anything you’re hoping to hear from him?

JM: “Well, there are two projects I’m immersed in, I hope I hear about both of them tonight. One is the For the People Act. And the For the People Act is a voting rights bill to prevent billionaires from buying elections, to make sure that citizens choose their politicians and not politicians choosing their citizens through gerrymandering, and to protect the sacred freedom of every American to cast a ballot at the ballot box. So these are really our core of what it means to be government of by and for the people.

“So that’s one, and I’m the lead senator carrying that fight. The second is Equality Act. And I think ‘building back better,’ to use the president’s term, includes ending the discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. Because right now, it’s still legal to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans in housing and public accommodations, in jury duty, in financial transactions in more than half our states. And if we really believe in equality, and we really believe in opportunity for every American, then we have to stop those doors of opportunity from being slammed shut on LGBTQ Americans.”

(Biden endorsed both the For the People Act, a sweeping elections bill which passed the House in March, and the Equality Act, a bill prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination, during his address Wednesday. Both bills have passed the House, but haven’t been introduced in the Senate.)