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Oregon businesses support River Democracy Act

The River Democracy Act (S. 192) was introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in February of 2021. The bill proposes to protect streams across Oregon as Wild and Scenic — a designation that would help protect river values such as fish and wildlife, recreation, water quality, culture and geology. Though widely supported by businesses throughout the state of Oregon, the bill has met resistance from Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.).

As the owner of whitewater rafting outfitter, Northwest Rafting Company, I fully support this bill and believe it offers an inimitable opportunity to safeguard Oregon’s unique and valuable waterways. Running multi-day trips on the Rogue, Illinois, Chetco and Owyhee rivers — waterways that have already received Wild and Scenic designations — I have seen first-hand the positive impact that Wild and Scenic protections can have on Oregon’s rivers.

On Jan. 12, Bentz spoke in opposition to S. 192 on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. In his speech, he made incorrect claims about what the legislation does and doesn’t do. These comments made by Bentz are unconstructive, and simply do not provide an accurate explanation of what the bill intends to accomplish or how protected corridors will be managed.

Emphasizing wildfire management throughout his speech, Bentz expressed his concerns about how the bill will impact management techniques, initiatives and access. In Section 5 (i), the bill clearly states: “Nothing in this act or an amendment made by this act alters the authority of the secretary concerned … to conduct wildland fire operations within a covered segment including the construction of temporary roads if required for public safety.”

It is absolutely crucial to take local concerns on fire management practices on protected lands into account — especially given the increasing severity of wildfire season in the state. What those opposing this bill must understand is that wildfire management is directly addressed by this bill in favor of local communities. Agencies in charge of designated rivers and streams must implement a fire risk reduction plan across a half-mile corridor on either side of the waterway. In a statement provided by Wyden’s office: “The proposal does nothing to impede the ability to fight fires. In fact, it requires land managers to take proactive steps to reduce wildfire risks to homes and businesses, and make these rivers safety corridors.”

Bentz also claims that the bill is unpopular among Oregonians. In September of last year, over 250 Oregon businesses came together to express their public support for S. 192 in a letter to Wyden and Merkley. These businesses spanned the entire state of Oregon (mostly rural) and included restaurants, breweries, farms and — pertinent to my livelihood — outdoor recreation outfitters.

Furthermore, this bill will boost local economies, mainly through outdoor recreation. In 2021, my business alone introduced around 700 individuals to the Rogue River where they stayed in local hotels, ate at local restaurants, and bought supplies at local shops. My guides who live in and around Grants Pass during their working season shop at local grocery stores and use services such as gas stations, shuttle services, and mechanics to keep trips running throughout the season. My business directly supports the economies of the counties we work in, and this is just one of many outfitters in the entire state.

Though the River Democracy Act ultimately benefits Oregonians, we are still a long ways away from seeing results. Bentz cited a concern that future designations will place us in a “bureaucratic wasteland” where it could take several years to implement and execute the plans addressed in the bill. While management plans do take time to solidify, they serve as the foundation for all future recreation plans. Without management plans, we won’t have recreation permits that support industries related to fishing, hiking, camping, and whitewater rafting.

At a time when climate change is undeniably impacting Oregon’s landscapes by means of drought and wildfire, we need to take large-scale actions that protect river ecosystems. Inaction and misinformed opposition will ultimately lead to irreparable consequences for our state down the road. We strongly urge those who oppose S. 192 to reconsider their position as we look towards a healthy and sustainable future for Oregon.

Zachary Collier is the owner of Northwest Rafting Company (www.nwrafting.com), a river outfitter on the Rogue, Owyhee, Chetco, Illinois and Salmon rivers.