Walden: Progress slow but steady on forest health, ESA reform

Rep. Greg Walden discusses the proposed renovation of Wallowa Lake Dam with project manager David Hockett of Joseph. Walden talked about the dam, forest health, the Endangered Species Act, and other issues when he was in Enterprise Tuesday. Photo by Rick Swart

When Rep. Greg Walden went to Washington, D.C., four years ago as a newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives he had aspirations of effecting big changes for the folks back home.

He just didn't know it would take so long.

"We were trying to throw a hail Mary pass ... but we kept dropping the ball," Walden said during an interview this week when he was in Enterprise. "Now we' just try to move the ball five yards at a time."

Walden uses this football analogy to describe how his political strategy has changed over the past four years.

The reality of politics inside the beltway is that major changes seldom come in one fell swoop. There are too many competing interests to be reconciled. So the best way to effect change, Walden says, is incrementally, "one piece at a time."

That approach seems to be working for the former state legislator and radio announcer from Hood River, who has scored some impressive breakthroughs on issues that have thwarted other members of Congress.

For example, after President George Bush visited Oregon last summer to see firsthand all the damage caused by catastrophic wildfires Walden crafted a bill that promises to become a model for the way that environmental policy is developed in the future.

That bill is HR5319, known as the "Healthy forests and Wildfire Risk Reduction Act of 2002." It is the brainchild of what the Bend Bulletin newspaper has dubbed as Oregon's "odd couple" - Walden, a Republican, and Rep. Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Eugene. Another one of the bill's sponsors is George Miller, who Walden describes as one of the most liberal environmentalists in Congress.

The bill that they have crafted would expedite thinning projects in forested areas where the presence of homes creates an additional fire hazard. It would expedite those projects by reducing the number of required alternatives the Forest Service must consider from five to one, would reduce the appeals period from 120 to 50 days, and give the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management authority to enter into "stewardship contracts" to get the work done.

Walden said that he was blown away when Miller, who he describes as "one of the greenest of the green" members of Congress bought into the idea of incorporating more local control into forest management.

"If we can get local decision making back involved and built that consensus and trust again, we'll all be better off," said Walden.

Walden is using the same approach to effect changes in the Endangered Species Act, which has been a thorn in the side of logging and ranching interests since the spotted owl issue shut down Pacific Northwest forest operations more than 10 years ago. Rather than try to convince his colleges to repeal the act or even entertain major revisions Walden is pushing for "peer reviewed science" to be required whenever an agency makes a decision that could adversely affect landowners.

"We're going to eat this elephant one piece at a time," he said.

Walden, who is on a 14-day, 2,300-mile trek through the vast Second Congressional District, apologized for not spending more time in Northeast Oregon.

"I've been consumed with the crisis in the Klamath Basin," he said, referring to the highly charged dispute over irrigation water in southern Oregon. He suggested that Wallowa County may have averted a similar crisis by getting "ahead of the curve" through an aggressive program of watershed planning.

Walden said that federal funding for the proposed $32 million renovation of the Wallowa Lake dam has been held up in budget deliberations that have stalled out in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House. He added that "anything could happen" during the lame duck session of Congress which will follow the November elections.

Walden defended his vote on a resolution authorizing the Bush administration to use force to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Walden and Sen. Gordon Smith are the only members of Oregon's congressional delegation to support the resolution.

"He is the kind of individual who doesn't respect anything but force," Walden said of the Iraqi dictator, who he compared to Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler. "He's not going to hit the beaches of Seaside or Cannon Beach but there is a very good chance that he is going to create the supply of weapons for people who are going to smuggle them across our borders."

"It's a hard question," he added, "when you realize that Saddam Hussein is a real threat. Is it better to shut him down now or is it better to wait?"

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