Tuesday, April 25, 2023

By:  Neil Nisperos

Blue Mountain Eagle

PRAIRIE CITY — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., met with Grant County residents at the Prairie City Community Center on Saturday, April 22, to listen to current concerns and share his recent funding accomplishments for the region.

Merkely, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he has a front row seat to decisions about congressional spending and can help steer federal funds to the region.

“Grant County has sought a few of the community-initiated projects and as the only member of our delegation who is on the Appropriations Committee, I’ll be fighting for those community-initiated projects,” Merkley said. “The term that’s used sometimes in D.C. is called ‘congressionally directed spending.’”

Merkley said in the past year he was able to help secure $1.25 million for Community Counseling Solutions’ mental health and substance abuse treatment center in John Day; $602,000 for improvements to Prairie City’s water system; $1 million for Prairie Wood Products through a bipartisan infrastructure grant; and $2 million to help with forest landscape restoration and fire resiliency.

Merkley said in an interview that he was able to secure $4 million in Secure Rural Schools Act funding last year for Grant County, which provides money for school and road maintenance, youth job training, wildfire prevention, watershed restoration and habitat conservation. Merkley said he, with the help of Oregon’s other U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, has to get the funding renewed every two to three years.

“The challenge of it is, it’s very hard because Oregon is the premiere recipient of it, and some of the other timber states get a little bit, but nothing like Oregon,” he said. “Of course we’re fighting like hell for it and we’ve been succeeding for about 18 years, so we’re going to keep at it.”

Merkley also mentioned the ending of the 10-year stewardship contract between the Malheur National Forest and the Iron Triangle logging company, which he said helped keep the Malheur Lumber mill open in John Day. Merkley said he met with the mill workers 10 years ago at a town hall in Grant County.

“I know that now there’s been a lot of concern that (the 10-year stewardship contract) has now expired, but it kept that mill in John Day open,” he said. “It saved the mill and it allowed it to expand and hire a couple of dozen other people, which is a big deal in any town. … So I’m continuing to support our small mills, of course the Prairie City mill and the John Day mill, and there’s a new chance now for the Forest Service to rework those contracts, to try to make sure that every local group has a supply of lumber.”

At the meeting, local leaders said they were able to share recent concerns over proposed development restrictions related to federal flood insurance to comply with environmental concerns. The rules for the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are being revised in order to make the program comply with the Environmental Protection Act after a series of lawsuits found that FEMA’s implementation of flood insurance in Oregon was resulting in jeopardy to 16 fish species and killer whales.

The ability of residents and jurisdictions to be able to obtain flood insurance will depend on compliance with the new rules, which are expected to include new restrictions on subdivision of land within a regulatory floodplain, limits on development of land in the floodplain, and additional stormwater management requirements such as low-impact development.

“It would hamper development, it would hamper private property owners in their ability to protect their own properties from wildfire as well as flood, and also hamper development in communities that already have a lack of buildable lands within their communities,” said Grant County Commissioner Jim Hamsher.

County Commissioner John Rowell and County Judge Scott Myers were also present at the town hall meeting.

“He’s been pretty active in local things,” Rowell said. “I can’t complain about the local things Merkley has done. He’s a person that gets out and talks to people, and that’s a good thing. He’s been good at funding and dealing with Eastern Oregon issues. He does understand Oregon’s dilemma between east and west.”

During the town hall, John Day resident Jake Little asked Merkley to address the Greater Idaho movement.

“I just want to give you the opportunity to maybe speculate on why that seems to be so consistent that some of the time people from Eastern Oregon feel less than represented,” he said.

Merkley said it would hurt to lose any part of his state. The U.S. Constitution, he said, gives a chance to restructure state borders, “but it’s a pretty challenging journey.”

“One of the reasons why I go into a town hall in every county every year is to fight for every part of Oregon,” he said. “There’s nothing better than actually talking to people directly to be able to try to understand the issues and work on them, and it doesn’t mean you’re ever going to have a perfect bond on a whole bunch of things. There’s a bunch of cultural issues. There’s a lot of division between urban and rural.”

Blue Mountain Hospital District CEO Cam Marlowe, who was among a number of local residents to speak to Merkley at the town hall, asked the senator to share how he could support better access to health care in frontier and rural communities. He noted that two-thirds of Oregon’s hospitals are operating in the red and that reliance on traveling health care professionals is puching up costs.

Merkley said he has championed a major increase in funding for rural health centers and clinics, the expansion of Medicaid and expanded nursing training, and has fought for lowering drug prices.

“I’m open to any more ideas on what we can do to back up the system, but those are some of the pieces,” he said.