By Scotta Callister
Rep. Greg Walden this week pledged to "push back" against the bureaucracy on issues important to rural residents -- forest road closures and access, county payments, the federal debt, and regulatory overreach.
A crowd of Grant County residents turned out to hear Walden speak Monday morning at the Grant County Fairgrounds.
Walden fielded several questions about the travel management rule being implemented on national forests, a hot topic in Grant County.
He noted the recent plan unveiled on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, where some 3,800 miles of roads are slated for closure.
"People are furious, and rightly so," he said, noting that many residents in that area felt their input was ignored. "I feel like in the Wallowa-Whitman, they got it wrong."
The issues are different on other forests, he noted. On the Malheur National Forest in Grant and Harney counties, the concerns focus on "cross-country travel and game retrieval," he said.
Cross-country travel -- the ability to drive off the road system in the forests -- would be outlawed in all the nation's forests under the travel rule.
That and the restrictions on vehicular game retrieval have drawn protests at meetings in Grant County, where critics say there has been no resource damage resulting from those practices. Walden was sympathetic.
"I have trouble believing that game retrieval is going to be a real problem," he said.
Walden also described the challenges facing the rural counties from the decline in the timber industry. Using charts, he noted the loss of mills across Oregon from 1980-2010 -- from 405 to just 106 -- and the corresponding impact on timber industry jobs, which dwindled from more than 45,000 in 1980 to about 15,000 in 2009.
He said that when working with other decision-makers, he tries to impress on them that every job lost in the rural area "is a huge hit to our economy."
Economists liken a single lost job in the rural region to 100 jobs in the Portland metro area, he noted.
He also stressed the impact on the forests, which are increasingly fire-prone.
"We have forests that are out of balance and in need of active management, if we are to avoid catastrophic fires," he said.
The budget proposed by the House Republicans calls for extension of county timber payments, something Walden has called a priority.
Walden and Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader are pushing a plan to set up trusts to govern management of some 3 million acres of O&C lands in Oregon, allowing increased logging and preserving critical areas.
The effort could complement another bill, offered by House Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that would require the Forest Service to sell enough timber to generate about $500 million for timber counties.
Walden said he proposes a two-year "bridge" to help the counties while such longer-term solutions can take effect.
On grazing, Walden said ranchers get sued by environmentalists because the government agencies charged with environmental monitoring lack the funding or staff to get their work done. He said he has worked to increase the money available for monitoring and also supports the Grazing Improvement Act that seeks to streamline the permit process and provide more stability for the livestock industry.
Asked about the plan to close the Farm Services Agency office in John Day, Walden said he has asked the agency to explain how it would provide some level of services locally. So far, he's had no response to the request, sent at the end of February.
He said the next step is to "ratchet up" the pressure on the agency.
Federal issues also were on the agenda, as Walden outlined the House Republicans' proposal for the federal budget and reining in spending and the national debt.
"We are on an auto-path of increased spending," he said. To change that, the GOP proposes to reform spending and move toward a balanced budget within 10 years, he said.
He charted a major difference between the GOP's plan and the president's proposal, showing the debt expanding by $5.3 trillion under the latter.
He said the GOP proposes to pay off the debt by 2050, without affecting anyone who is on Social Security or Medicare today.
Walden also debunked a couple of Internet myths at the town hall in response to a question. Widely circulated by email, the first claim is that members of Congress don't pay into Social Security, and the second contends that they can retire with full pay after serving just one term.
Both of those claims are false, he said -- "total fraud." Walden noted that his staff spends a lot of time truthing Internet stories in response to constituents' concerns.