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Wyden defends River Democracy Act in virtual town hall

 Sept 3

FOLLOWED BY: Wild and scenic rivers that aren't, Capital Press editorial 8/6/21

HERMISTON, Ore. — Legislation that would add nearly 4,700 miles of wild and scenic rivers across Oregon would have no impact on private land or existing property rights, according to the bill’s chief architect, Sen. Ron Wyden.

Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced the River Democracy Act in February based on more than 15,000 public nominations from all corners of the state.

On Aug. 31, Wyden defended the bill during an hour-long virtual town hall. The legislation has faced opposition from rural counties over whether it would add new restrictions on grazing, timber harvest and recreational access.

Speaking from Hermiston in northeast Oregon, Wyden pledged the bill would not go forward without “loophole-free, airtight” protections for private property.

Rather, he said it applies only to federal lands and was written specifically not to interfere with existing property, grazing and water rights.

“Protecting existing rights was part of our effort to strike a balance,” Wyden said.

If passed, the River Democracy Act would roughly triple the number of wild and scenic rivers in Oregon. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was established in 1968 to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.

The bill also widens protective buffers from a quarter-mile to half-mile on both sides of designated streams, adding up to 3 million acres of protected land.

Earlier this year, the American Forest Resource Council, a regional timber trade association, conducted its own analysis of waterways nominated for inclusion in the bill. The group found that just 15% were actually labeled as “rivers,” with most being identified as streams, gulches, draws or unnamed tributaries.

The AFRC and other opponents have argued this is a misuse of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System — though Wyden countered that intermittent streams are not only valid for protection under the law, but necessary for watersheds.

“I’ve come to think that there’s almost a transportation analogy here that’s appropriate,” Wyden said. “You don’t manage traffic just by building highways. You need connecting streets, alleyways and sidewalks. The same, in fact, applies to most river systems.”

Approximately 2 million Oregonians, or nearly half the state’s total population, depend on intermittent streams for clean drinking water, Wyden added.

The bill also requires the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to assess wildfire risks in each wild and scenic river corridor. The agencies would then have up to six years to develop mitigation plans, working with local, state and tribal governments.

The bill would create a $30 million per year fund to restore and rehabilitate riparian areas that do burn in a wildfire, Wyden said.

”What I see the River Democracy Act doing is creating a multiple-use toolbox so we have this array of tools and we can build on existing law,” Wyden said.

Supporters of the bill did speak during the virtual town hall, including representatives of the Nez Perce Tribe and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Kat Brigham, CTUIR chair, said she is pleased with the River Democracy Act, and that it reinforces stream restoration already undertaken by the tribes.

“It moves us closer to what we are working toward — building, protecting and enhancing cold, clean water, not only for our first foods, but for ourselves,” Brigham said.

Others, however, say their questions remain unanswered.

In a memo released shortly after the meeting, the AFRC pushed back against the bill, arguing wild and scenic designations would impose restrictions on forest management and actually increase wildfire risk in the protected stream corridors.

The bill would also “dramatically increase management costs and complexity on-the-ground, create conflicts between user groups, and distract and overload federal agencies already overwhelmed by catastrophic wildfire management and response,” the memo states.

Prior to the town hall, the Eastern Oregon Counties Association sent a letter to Wyden outlining similar concerns related to public access, fire prevention and property rights.

Going forward, Wyden said that while people may have differences of opinion, he hopes to keep the lines of communication open to answer questions and provide feedback.

”I’m committed to getting this right,” he said.

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Wild and scenic rivers that aren't

Capital Press editorial 8/6/21

People across Eastern Oregon — and the rest of the state, for that matter — are right to question a proposal by Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to designate 4,700 miles of rivers, creeks, ditches and swales as federal “wild and scenic rivers.”

Perhaps a few actual rivers might deserve attention, but 4,700 miles? That’s the distance from Portland to Oslo, Norway.

When we think of wild and scenic rivers, we think of the Rogue River in Western Oregon or the Metolius River in Central Oregon. In fact, those rivers are already designated wild and scenic — along with 66 others across the state. All told, 1,916 miles of rivers have been designated, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website.

One wonders where the friends of Wyden and Merkley found any actual rivers that hadn’t already been designated. In Wallowa County, commissioners hired a consulting firm to track down 404 miles of “rivers” proposed to be designated wild and scenic. They found that most are not even labeled rivers, are not free-flowing and do not have water year-round.

If they are not rivers, how could they be designed wild and scenic rivers?

It’s time for Wyden and Merkley to rethink this bill. Whatever the intent of the bill is, it’s not protecting wild and scenic rivers, because that’s already been done.

The senators say school children and others came up with the list of new rivers. That’s why they called their bill the River Democracy Act.

Maybe school children and environmental groups had a say in the bill, but Eastern Oregon counties didn’t.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., said he talked with the 63 commissioners representing the 20 counties in his 69,000-square-mile congressional district; 53 commissioners oppose the River Democracy Act.

When Eastern Oregon counties questioned the need to designate more rivers — and to expand the protected zones to a half mile on each side — the senators said they had sent a letter last fall informing them of their plan.

That, of course, is not the point.

The point is that Oregon’s senators would think this is a good idea, without benefit of local support and without fully considering how it will impact Oregonians.




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