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Town hall turns to tribes

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden answers questions during a town hall meeting held at OIT on Saturday.

Published Jan. 11, 2004


He wasn't there to exercise his larynx, but a large, vocal audience gave Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's ears a workout during a town hall meeting Saturday in Klamath Falls.

More than 75 people crowded the auditorium in the Purvine Building at Oregon Institute of Technology, with many expressing bitterness about closed negotiations involving possible transfer of a large portion of the Winema National Forest to the Klamath Tribes.

The Democratic senator's arrival was delayed an hour because of fog at the Klamath Falls Airport, but the crowd wasn't dissuaded. While the topics were many and far-ranging - from status of the White City veterans domiciliary to Wyden's support for a resolution condemning Syria to "sweetheart deals" by large corporations - private talks about the future of forest lands dominated.

"We are not being allowed to have any input ... private property owners are not being represented," complained one speaker.

People were not asked to identify themselves, but most speaking on the transfer indicated they are from the Sprague River area, which is adjacent to the forest's Chiloquin Ranger District.

"I think I got the message," Wyden said after several people criticized the discussion process promoted by Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Wyden said he would have favored another method involving public meetings, but emphasized, "This is her call. She is the secretary of the interior."

He repeatedly insisted he plans to withhold comment until, and if, an actual proposal is made.

"I'm not here to exercise my larynx," Wyden said. "There's not a proposal yet so it's hard to wade on in and shoot from the hip. ... When we see a proposal, that's not the end of the debate, it's the beginning of the debate."

The senator received applause when, after a volley of angry comments, he promised to study any specific proposal - and if a land transfer plan is made, pledged that any proposal will be open to public discussion, and promised to filibuster or take other action to prevent a possible lands transfer rider from being attached to another piece of legislation.

"I would just stop any kind of rider cold," Wyden said.

He also issued a blanket condemnation for closed-to-the-public discussions.

"There's no question too many decisions that affect Oregonians are made behind closed door," he said.

Also earning audience grumbles was President Bush's proposed overhaul of national immigration laws. One audience member lambasted Bush for what she believes is capitulating to Mexican President Vicente Fox.

"I don't like the attitude of a president of another country trying to tell us what to do," she said.

Wyden said he is awaiting specific proposals, but noted he "is open to a process where people can earn, and underline earn, citizenship."

When asked about recent legislation that narrowly passed Congress and revises prescription health benefits, Wyden said he reluctantly voted for the bill because he believes it provides some help for low income elderly people. He and others are preparing legislation that he said will eliminate some provisions of the recently enacted law.

Wyden promised to try to keep the White City domiciliary, which has been targeted for closure, open. He received applause after declaring, "We shouldn't leave any veterans behind."

Oregon's senior senator holds annual town hall meetings in all 36 counties, fulfilling a pledge he made when he first ran for the Senate in 1995. He noted recent statewide storms have complicated that process.

Wyden is scheduled to meet with Lake County people today from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at the Lakeview Interagency Building, 1301 S. G St., Lakeview.

Regional Editor Lee Juillerat covers Lake, Siskiyou, Modoc and northern Klamath counties. He can be reached at 885-4421, (800) 275-0982, or by e-mail at lee@heraldandnews.com.





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