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Seeking common ground

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden touched on early efforts to reach across the aisle and across legislative branches to change the way forests are managed at a meeting with local business leaders.

At the meeting Saturday with a group of locals who formed in Medford last fall concerned about repeats of the thick wildfire smoke that choked Southern Oregon last summer, Walden said he's had some "very productive" conversations with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, hoping to find common ground for draft legislation that would reform federal forest management.

"I've worked with Senator Wyden. He's very engaged in this activity as well, and we're trying to find the common ground in the Northwest that we can spread across the country," Walden said. 

Walden said it was too early in their discussions to say where the Democrats and Republicans could find "common ground," other than "we're making progress, and we're kind of at a critical juncture right now" as the House puts together next year's spending bill.

"Right now as we put together the spending bill for next year in the federal government, there's an opportunity here to get both forest management reforms and how we pay for fire reforms into that legislation," Walden said. "We're not there yet, but we are having good discussions and making progress."

Walden said he sees another legislative opportunity in the Farm Bill to be discussed in the coming months, saying he's "fully committed to see this through."

The meeting Saturday at the Coldwell Banker Pro West office in downtown Medford follows meetings that started last fall involving the loosely affiliated "Smoke Committee," which former Medford city councilor and Realtor Claudette Moore helped organize.

"I was just mad as hell," Moore said. "Seven weeks of smoke was enough for me."

Starting last fall, she and others began speaking at area Rotary and Soroptimist clubs about the health and economic impacts of the smoke. She's gathered an email list of more than 200 people following a November open house event at the Carnegie Building, though the group hasn't yet advocated for specific action.

"It's not a Republican or a Democrat issue, it's an Oregonian issue, it's a Northwest issue," Moore said.

Republican State Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., who has a background in wildland firefighting and forestry work, touched on efforts in the state Legislature to improve the way the state collaborates with federal agencies, though he described the efforts as in the "fledgling stages."  He said state legislators are looking at other states for models, such as Idaho's Good Neighbor Authority, which enables the Forest Service to partner with the Idaho Department of Lands.

"It's not just a problem in Oregon, it is a big problem in Oregon, but there's other states," Baertschiger said. "Idaho is really taking some strides and we're starting to look at that model too."

Walden said he'd had "very productive discussions" with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs a Senate forest management committee, about ways to incorporate some of the legislation passed by the House into something the Senate can pass.

"There's been continuing efforts to find bipartisan support, which I think we did in the House on the forestry bill, but also with the Senate," Walden said.

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Greg Walden discusses forest management legislation at Coldwell Banker Pro West in Medford on Saturday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]