ENTERPRISE — U.S. Rep. Greg Walden spoke to an enthusiastic audience during a town hall meeting on Sept. 14 at Community Connection. While Walden covered several issues during the meeting, management of U.S. forests and that relationship to growing wildfire problems in the West predominated.
Walden did not criticize the U.S. Forest Service itself, but pointed to environmental groups that use lawsuits to stall or halt USFS efforts to maintain healthy forests.“These fires are dangerous and devastating and shouldn’t be occurring at this level. It’s happening in part because we’re not giving the men and women in the agencies the tools they need to do the work,” he said.
Walden touted bill HR 2647 that passed through the House and would fund some wildfire fighting through the Federal Emergency Management Agency by treating wildfires as a natural disaster. The bill also reforms the National Environmental Policies Act and streamlines the process to begin logging and thinning federal lands. The bill requires replanting within five years in areas impacted by wildfire, and limits lawsuits filed by environmental groups by requiring the posting of a bond before proposed litigation. It also makes changes to salvage practices after wildfires.
Walden said this is the third consecutive year the House has passed legislation that allows for healthier forest management practices. He blamed the Senate for letting the proposed legislation get bogged down in committee. Walden also said Oregon senators Merkley and Wyden were not on board with the bill. “I’m just saying, some of them have their own bills and all that, but even those never got to the floor of the Senate,” he said.
In relation to farm and ranch recovery from fires, Walden said that several government agencies, including the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the USFS could offer assistance. “They have programs, and they’re ready to help any way they can,” he said.
The forest fire issue hit home with Troy ranchers Buck and Chelsea Matthews, who run cows on Eden Bench near Troy, which the Grizzly Bear Complex fire nearly destroyed. Buck Matthews addressed Walden, saying many roads in the area that could have been used to provide quicker access to the fire were closed off by the USFS. “If those roads would have been accessible, the fire could have been stopped long before it was,” Matthews said.
Matthews also alleged that USFS fire mismanagement cost him a significant portion of grazing land for the family’s cattle, and possibly some cattle as well. The USFS started a backburn to combat the main fire, which possibly left some of the Matthews’ cows caught in between to fend for themselves. Also, the main fire never reached the intended backburn, which destroyed a large portion of the family’s grazing for their cattle.
A possible wolf attack also injured the family’s much-needed cow dogs. “It feels like our hands are tied by people who have no skin in the game,” Chelsea Matthews said.
A sympathetic Walden urged the family to document their losses for the purpose of reimbursement from government programs.
Walden held out some hope that the devastation from the year’s fire season could clear the way for making progress with federal forest lands management. “The public is with us. You can’t look at these fires and say, ‘That’s a good thing.’ You can’t ingest this smoke and say, ‘That’s a healthy thing.’ There’s a lot of built-up energy to go do what we want to do; we’ve just got some people in the way,” Walden said.