Topics range from wild horses to health care
by Steve Howe
United States Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) paid a visit to Harney County on Saturday, May 24, and stopped at the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center in Burns for his 704th “town hall” meeting. Residents gathered to ask questions and make comments on a wide variety of issues.
First on the senator’s agenda was to recognize local resident Verna Pettyjohn’s instrumental role in the newly completed renovation of the senior center. She was awarded the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative (OTEC)’s Peggi Timm Civic Leadership Award. Wyden presented her with an American flag that had been flown over the U.S. capitol.
Next, Wyden began the discussion by noting several recent news items. First, he praised the recent signing of the greater sage grouse Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), commenting that it was a good model and a “win-win” for the county. He recognized Stacy Davies and Colby Marshall for their work on the agreement.
Secondly, he announced the one-year extension of funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) through the passage of the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013.
Finally, he noted upcoming bipartisan fire legislation, recently endorsed by President Obama, that would bring changes to how large wildfire suppression is funded. According to Wyden’s website, it would mean that the largest fires (roughly 1 percent) would be treated as natural disasters and would, therefore, be paid for out of the disaster fund, freeing up money for land management agencies to use for prevention.
“What this would say is we’ll no longer rob the prevention fund when these big fires break out,” Wyden explained.
Wyden then opened the floor for questions and comments from the audience. Issues ranged all the way from healthcare to wild horses.
Land and wildlife management
Following Wyden’s acknowledgement and praise of the greater sage grouse CCAA, the focus of discussion shifted to another animal: the wild horse. It was noted that there are similar agreements in the works for this issue as well, and Wyden again expressed his support of the concept:
“I think Harney County is on the right side of history with these kinds of agreements that produce collaboration rather than confrontation,” he said.
Stacy Davies, representing Roaring Springs Ranch, updated the senator on the current situation with wild horses, explaining that there are nearly 50,000 horses in holding facilities (nationwide). He noted that these animals are responsible for major reductions in AUMs (animal unit months) which, he explained, are quickly driving ranchers out of business.
Senator Wyden acknowledged the sense of urgency, and stated that he would convey the gravity of the situation to the appropriate federal agencies.
A concern was raised about the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA)’s proposed Oregon Desert Trail and whether it would affect landowners. The organization has indicated that it is seeking federal designation for the trail.
Wyden was aware of the project, but did not have enough information at the time to speak in detail about its status. But he did state generally his stance with regard to these situations:
“My policy, with respect to natural resources, is I don’t come out for anything until we’ve given everybody a chance to try to work together and to find common ground,” explained Wyden.
The healthcare discussion began with a concern from the audience expressed over the recent allegations against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“I can’t find much that is more, just awful, than the idea of falsifying records with respect to services for veterans,” said Wyden. “That’s not what America is all about.”
Wyden noted that veterans’ healthcare has long been underfunded, and that the current scandal has made things all the worse.
Another concern expressed was about the general lack of healthcare providers in rural areas, like Harney County. Wyden recognized the issue and explained that there are multiple parts to the solution.
One strategy would be getting more nurses, physician assistants, and others to rural areas in order to stretch the resources that currently exist.
Secondly, he noted his focus on promoting telehealth and digital medicine, and the importance of connecting rural medical professionals with doctors around the state.
Of course, he said, the ultimate goal would be to get more doctors to rural areas. He explained that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provided for some loan forgiveness for doctors who choose to go to rural areas, but that is only a start.
The ACA was mentioned on several occasions, and on that topic the senator emphasized his bipartisan record on voting for and developing healthcare bills, and also made it clear that there are issues that remain unresolved with the healthcare law.
“Obviously, there’s a lot to do. We’re all very, very troubled by what happened with Cover Oregon, and the state’s website,” explained Wyden, stating that he, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), have asked for a federal investigation into that issue.
A member of the audience asked Senator Wyden about his support of a United Nations treaty regulating the international arms trade, and expressed concern about Second Amendment rights. Wyden explained that he could not find anything in the language of the bill that would limit the right to bear arms, and that he supports the Second Amendment.
“I have read it, and re-read it, and read it again, and I can’t find anything in [the bill] that does damage to the Second Amendment. What it does do,” Wyden explained, “is it keeps us from selling weapons to terrorists, which is what the agreement is all about.”
Wyden arranged to have the text of the bill sent to the concerned parties to have them highlight what language they found objectionable.
Pete Runnels thanked Wyden for his work on promoting a stewardship contract that kept Malheur Lumber open in Grant County, and hoped that the economic benefits “trickled down” to Harney County.
“We’re going to try to make that the model for the whole east side — that’s in my Eastside bill,” said Wyden, referring to his Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection, and Jobs Act bill.
“The cut is up, the litigation is down,” said Wyden.
An audience member asked Wyden to comment on the problem of rural poverty.
He touted educational funding, forestry, transportation, and agriculture as pieces of the solution.
“We do a lot of things well in our state, but what we do best is grow things, so we ought to encourage people to grow things…and then ship them somewhere,” said Wyden. “A lot of these countries around the world really would like our products. We just have to clear out some of the trade barriers.”
Toward the latter half of the meeting, a comment was made about the character of leadership in Congress. Wyden took the opportunity to emphasize the importance he places on bipartisanship:
“If there’s one thing I want to do,” he said, “one thing above all else in my time in public service, it is to be part of the effort to break this partisanship and polarization.”
Other topics included the conflict of free speech and political correctness, government spending and healthcare costs, and making Medicare more easily navigable for seniors.