Oregon has approximately 110,994 miles of river, of which 1,916.7 miles are designated as wild & scenic (marked bold blue)—almost 2% of the state's river miles. The River Democracy Act (RDA) would add an additional 4,700 miles of Oregon’s streams to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. (Source:National Wild and Scenic Rivers System)

The River Democracy Act (RDA), currently making its way through Congress, would add an additional 4,700 miles of Oregon’s streams to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. But the bill proposed by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley is seeing opposition that follows some familiar faultlines, upending two years of compromise-building. 

Senator Wyden, who’s sponsoring the bill, began a public nomination process in the state in 2020 in which more than 2,200 Oregonians nominated 15,000 miles of streams along federal lands to be named and added via the River Democracy Act (RDA). 

The act would require comprehensive land use management planning on listed streams to reduce catastrophic wildfire, improve ecological function, and protect endangered species and native species that are culturally significant to Tribes. The bill also asks for the appropriation of $30 million per year for restoration projects that provide drinking water or address damage from catastrophic wildfires.

From here you can insert any cliché for western public resource disagreements where the sides have gone to their corners – local vs federal control; conservation vs logging; economic vs cultural needs.

In conflict are management practices, deep-seated values, and long-standing narratives about natural resources, public land, and the public process. The outcome could determine the future of rural communities in question, affect endangered species, rural economies and ecosystems, and tribes’ first foods and wildlife habitat—all in the path of climate change and wildfire.  

Building Consensus “The Oregon Way”

Wyden hoped to utilize “The Oregon Way,” a process of public engagement and consensus-building, to tackle some of the toughest natural resources issues facing the state. The bill was introduced in the Senate in February 2021 and started kicking up dust in rural Oregon in the summer.

When the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968 it was an attempt to balance the centuries of logging, damming, development, and impacts of non-indigenous settlement and resource extraction. The act states that the national policy of damming rivers through the early 20th century needed to be “complemented” by a policy that would keep undammed rivers in 1968 free-flowing in order to protect water quality and “fulfill national conservation purposes.”

“The goals of the Wild & Scenic River Act and the River Democracy Act are maintaining free-flowing rivers and protecting water quality and ‘outstanding remarkable values’” explained Dr. James Johnston, research associate at Oregon State University (OSU). “Outstanding remarkable values” may be scenic, recreational, geologic, historic, cultural, or related to fish and wildlife.

Disagreement Remains, Blocks the Way

Opponents of the bill, such as Oregon Representative Cliff Bentz, a number of rural county commissioners, and the timber lobby say they are concerned the RDA would increase logging and grazing restrictions and do more harm than good when it comes to wildfire prevention.

“If passed, this bill would label some 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers, creeks, and streams as ‘Wild and Scenic,’ although a more appropriate phrase would be: ‘just waiting to be burned and ruined,’” said Bentz in his January 11 speech in Congress.

But neither the language of the River Democracy Act nor the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act prohibits grazing or logging. The bill doesn’t create new management planning procedures but hitches it to the existing forest planning process. The bill also makes specific allowances for activities like road-building for wildfire suppression and puts forth funds for mitigation after a catastrophic wildfire. 

However, opponents say they still fear unintended consequences.

Union County Commissioner, Paul Anderes, lives in rural northeast Oregon where logging and ranching on federal land are significant industries. 

“I have concerns about the details and how the bill will be applied,” he said. “Senator [Wyden] has the most noble intentions but when the letter of the law is applied it is going to be problematic. The courts decide and do not consider intent. They consider what’s in the act.”

Unlike Representative Bentz or Commissioner Anderes, Dr. Johnston said that, in his reading of the bill, its goals are not at odds with logging or grazing. “I don’t immediately see how protecting water quality is inconsistent with the important work that federal land managers are doing to reduce fuel loads and mitigate catastrophic wildfire,” he said. “I am not aware of any case in which courts have prohibited thinning [logging] as part of management plans on Wild and Scenic Rivers.”

Organized Opposition

This reasoning and opposition to the RDA are frustrating the bill’s proponents who see the act as a compromise forged over two years in good faith through “The Oregon Way.”

“In essence, opponents are saying: ‘We don’t trust the plain language in front of us,’” said Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild, an educational, scientific, and charitable environmental non-profit organization. He questions whether these are good-faith arguments or strawmen for larger political and ideological differences in Oregon and the country.

Klavins says it’s “business as usual” attitudes that stoked the recent and tardy opposition to the RDA a year after its introduction in congress and two years after the bill’s public nomination process. 

Through a public records request, Oregon Wild found months-long communication between rural county commissioners and the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), a timber trade association that lobbies for “sustained yield timber harvests” and forest health on public land. The communications show a back-and-forth between Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes and staff at AFRC on letters and county resolutions opposing the RDA. 

AFRC’s draft letter opposing the RDA was sent, unchanged, to Senator Wyden in August by the Eastern Oregon Counties Association, signed by 14 rural county commissioners and judges. Similarly, a resolution drafted by AFRC opposing the RDA was adopted by Anderes and fellow Union County Commissioners. 

“Thank you for your advocacy and partnership,” wrote AFRC CEO, Travis Joseph, to Commissioner Paul Anderes, who also serves as president of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association. 

Commissioner Anderes said he worked with the American Forest Resource Council to oppose RDA because their positions were aligned. “We deal with a variety of groups on different topics,” he said, including legislative offices, the Nature Conservancy, and others. “The AFRC helped us because they have the capacity to do research that we as commissioners don’t have.” 

Ongoing Distrust, From the “Timber Wars” to Today

The AFRC talking points and rural county commissioners’ opposition to the River Democracy Act represent a continuing distrust a portion of the Oregon public has about changing forest management policy. 

In the 1990s Oregonians were literally at fisticuffs over the logging of the last tracts of old-growth forests. Many in timber-dependent communities marked the “Timber Wars” of the ’90s as the beginning of the end for their rural economies and communities, blaming environmental interests.

Some proponents of the River Democracy Act have a similar distrust of logging interests. “Looking at the track record of the timber industry they are the reason that we don’t have old-growth, the reason our streams are trampled, the reason we don’t have habitat, the reason unions are busted, the reason rural communities are in trouble,” said Klavins.

While Union County Commissioner Anderes is opposed to the RDA, he says he has a lot of faith and experience in the management planning process for federal lands done locally around his county. “I see where the Forest Service has taken individuals’ comments and put them into tweaking the management plan. I find the Forest Service receptive, ” he said. 

Similarly, Klavins has experience with the forest planning process and wants to see it extended to more Oregon streams through the passage of the River Democracy Act. 

He says the long-range, locally based planning prescribed by the RDA is exactly what is needed to practice “The Oregon Way” and to manage watersheds and public land. “Collaborative forest restoration needs partners on both sides that want to talk. There’s a place where we can start to have conversations about how to manage.”  

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