Rep. Greg Walden’s bill that would make critical improvements to fire protection at Crooked River Ranch is in trouble in Congress. Walden, R-Hood River, and Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, are pointing fingers at each other.
While they are doing that, Crooked River Ranch could be the loser.
Walden’s office tells us Wyden is holding up the bill by using it as a bargaining chip to secure passage of a bill Wyden introduced to add wilderness. Wyden’s office tells us that “last-minute changes” are souring a deal agreed to on the Senate side that Walden’s bill would be included in a package.
Walden’s Crooked River Ranch bill is the wrong one to play games with. It needs to pass before the next fire season.
Long before the disastrous wildfire in Paradise, California, that killed at least 88 people, Wyden and Walden knew the dangers from wildfire to Crooked River Ranch.
“The Crooked River Ranch deserves action ASAP to reduce the devastating potential of wildfires threatening its Central Oregon community,” Wyden tweeted earlier this year. “Fire prevention efforts must do more to protect homes within the Ranch.”
Wyden explained the issue in a Senate committee.
“Many of the homes at Crooked River Ranch are adjacent to the Deschutes Canyon/Steelhead Falls Wilderness (Study) Area,” he said during a hearing on the bill. “The Crooked River legislation adjusts the boundary of the wilderness study area in the hopes that fire prevention can be made more aggressive to protect the neighboring homes within the ranch.”
Walden’s bill would allow mechanized fire prevention to create a buffer of more than 600 acres between homes and the tinderbox of a canyon next door.
Wyden did have issues with the bill. He argued it did not have broad public support. That was a bewildering argument, as it was supported by the Crooked River Ranch Homeowners Association, the Crooked River Ranch Fire & Rescue, the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association, Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins, the state legislators who represent the area and Jefferson County commissioners. That is broad public support by anyone’s definition.
Wyden also complained that the bill was “limited.” He did get changes made to the bill that clarified the released BLM lands would be managed to improve fire resiliency and forest health. And then Wyden voted to pass the bill out of committee.
But now that it is time to move the bill forward, it seems trapped in a game of political chicken. Wyden apparently wants his wilderness bill. Walden wants his bill for Crooked River Ranch.
The public safety of Crooked River Ranch is surely important enough for Congress to pass Walden’s bill without any strings attached.