A crowd of about 80 descended on the Wallowa Senior Center on July 7, to participate in a town hall meeting with Oregon U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.It was the senator’s 359th town hall since taking office in 2009.
Merkley spent much of the hour long meeting answering audience questions on subjects ranging from health care to GMO labeling and enlightening listeners on his latest Washington D.C. accomplishments.
The senator also gave the Chieftain an exclusive interview prior to the session in which he addressed challenges directly related to rural communities.
When questioned about resource-related jobs, the senator said he’d been on the forefront of getting funds to research mass timber construction, buildings and structures made with mostly engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber and mass plywood .
“If we can replace concrete and steel in building 10 to 12 stories high, it could be a huge market for Oregon’s engineered wood products,” he said.
Merkley also spoke of how he successfully inserted forest collaborative funding into the federal farm and appropriations bills, which are out of their respective senate committees and headed for the president’s desk.
One of the major breakthroughs is a doubling of the length of stewardship contracts that will increase guaranteed supply from national forests to mills for 10 to 20 years.
“For some mills, that’s enough to make sure they can survive and stay open,” Merkley said. Forest collaborative funding also doubled, which Merkley noted helps keep timber sales out of the courts.
Along with mass timber products, Merkley is also throwing his senatorial weight behind torrefied wood products. Intended as a coal substitute, the product is composed of scrapwood rendered into a powder and baking it until it resembles coal. John Day currently has a contract for a commercial torrefaction production plant.
“The product is probably going to be sold in Japan at this point, because they’re looking for a coal replacement in their electric operations,” Merkley said.
As the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and rural development, Merkley is also working on risk management for crop insurance as well as funding for ag research, things the present administration is attempting to zero out or greatly reduce in the upcoming budget.
At least one Wallowa County farmer is testing hemp as a cash crop, made possible by a provision the senator sponsored.
Bringing broadband internet access to rural areas is a major concern for the senator on the rural development front.
“I pushed for us to get a 10-fold increase in broadband,” Merkley said. “It seems like broadband is one of the most important things for success in small towns. You’re not going to get any significant company without broadband, or even keep people in small towns.”
Also on the rural front, the senator is also working on funding for rural water infrastructure, including clean water supply and wastewater treatment.
“The majority of our towns have a challenge with needing to expand or replace an old system,” he said.
The Veterans Administration is also of key concern to the senator. He said that the government pumped a lot of money into the agency to reduce the backlog of patients.
“They’re struggling to reduce, but it hasn’t been visible the way it was a year ago, so I believe we must have had some improvement, but I haven’t see a report that says that,” Merkley said.
He said the issue he hears most about from Oregon veterans is the VA Choice program that allows veterans who live a significant distance from the nearest VA clinic the option to use a local clinic for care and treatment.
“Some veterans really want it and some are really opposed to it,” Merkley said. He said those who are opposed to the program are afraid of an erosion of the separate veterans system and its funding. Those who support VA Choice want to make it easy for veterans to get health care.
“I’m basically arguing, ‘let’s do both,’” he said. “Let’s keep the funding in place for our veterans system, but when it can’t operate fast enough or its too far away, we can utilize local health care.”
He added that the choice program has strong congressional bipartisan support.
During the town hall, Merkeley threw a spotlight on the local Soroptimists International chapter, noting their work with its thrift store and money raised for scholarships in order to make a stronger community.
The senator spoke of his trip to a Brownsville, Texas, immigration detention facility where he was nearly arrested after asking to tour the premises. He said that after his return, many Republicans privately told him they were appalled by the facility conditions and family separations but feared to speak publicly about it.
“I would hope there would be issues where people would feel like something is so morally wrong ... that regardless of the consequences, they would speak up.”
In his closing, the senator thanked the audience for a “terrific town hall” although he wished for more participation by Republicans.
“I think it’s important to hold town halls where people from both sides of the aisle can express their opinions and talk across difficult issues,” he said. “It’s not happening on the national level.”