It would be a miserable failure for Congress not to pass Rep. Greg Walden’s fire protection bill for Crooked River Ranch before the next fire season. A key obstacle is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other Democratic senators.
Wyden’s office says he wants Walden’s bill bundled together as part of a package of more than 30 public lands bills, including one of his own that would add thousands of acres of wilderness to Oregon.
But the Crooked River Ranch bill is a public safety matter. Wyden should insist that it be removed from the package, and he should shepherd its passage to the president’s desk. Wyden and other senators need to stop holding the public safety of Crooked River Ranch hostage.
Walden’s office says Wyden even rejected last week a compromise worked out by Walden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, to give Wyden some of the Oregon wilderness he is after. Wyden’s office acknowledged there was such a discussion and complained there was no formal proposal. But why should Walden have to cut a public lands deal to get a public safety bill passed? He shouldn’t.
Walden, R-Hood River, is trying to pass a bill to give Crooked River Ranch a better chance when there is a wildfire. The homes of Crooked River Ranch are right next to a canyon, and the canyon is a wilderness study area. The wilderness study area status means it’s more difficult to create a fire buffer between the homes and the canyon. A buffer could save lives and property in the event of the fire.
Walden’s bill redraws the boundary of the wilderness study area and would allow mechanized fire protection in a buffer area of about 600 acres. Jefferson County commissioners just sent Wyden a letter last week, urging him to champion the bill through Congress.
Wyden’s staff told us Wyden has been working on the Crooked River issue longer than Walden. That’s great. Where was Wyden’s bill to solve the problem?
Wyden’s staff also told us Wyden agreed to a deal with Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that the Crooked River Ranch bill and Wyden’s bill adding more wilderness would be considered together with some 30-plus other public lands bills. Wyden’s office say Walden’s office agreed to that compromise. Walden’s office says it did not. Regardless, why on earth would any member of Congress make a public safety bill contingent on other bills passing?
Wyden’s office offered an explanation. It said many Democratic senators have a hard time stomaching removing any land from wilderness consideration, which Walden’s bill does. If that’s true, it surely didn’t help matters when Wyden came out so strongly initially against Walden’s bill. For instance, Wyden insisted the bill did not have broad public support. In fact, it was supported by the ranch’s homeowner association, state and local public safety officials and local political leaders.
Public lands bills — Democratic and Republican — do get herded together near the end of a Congress. It’s a little something for everyone, if you will. But there is no reason why the safety of Crooked River Ranch should be lumped in that pile. Oregon doesn’t need its own version of the Paradise, California, fire because Wyden and other Democratic senators held up the Crooked River Ranch bill.