GRANTS PASS — Longstanding proposals to protect rivers and forests in Oregon as wilderness areas were reintroduced in Congress on Thursday by Oregon’s two senators.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley co-sponsored the proposals. Wyden said that as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he hopes to break the gridlock that has held them up in the past.
“These areas provide habitats to countless species of plants and animals, economic benefits to surrounding communities and recreational opportunities for Oregonians and visitors throughout the nation,” Wyden said in a statement.
Merkley said in a statement the bills were an important step toward protecting treasured terrain so surrounding areas have healthy salmon runs, recreation and tourism for their local economies.
The measures face an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House, where Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has been working on legislation to increase logging in national forests.
“Chairman Hastings considers wilderness bills on an individual basis, but is concerned about the restrictions they place on public access to public lands,” said committee aide Spencer Pederson.
Steve Pedery, conservation director for the environmental group Oregon Wild, said he was confident Wyden would be able to broker a public lands deal with Republicans interested in energy development that would result in adding the areas to the nation’s wilderness areas, as he has done in the past.
The bills would expand the Oregon Caves National Monument and Wild Rogue Wilderness in southwestern Oregon, create new wilderness along the John Day River in Central Oregon, and create the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness to protect old growth forest in the Coast Range on the Siuslaw National Forest. They also would elevate Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections for the Chetco River in southwestern Oregon, and the Molalla River south of Portland.
Pedery said wilderness measures take a long time to build enough support to gain approval by Congress. He said the Devil’s Staircase proposal goes back 30 years.
The bills cover areas similar to those that would be protected as wilderness in a proposal to increase federal logging revenues for Oregon timber counties.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a co-sponsor of the timber counties proposal, urged Wyden to hold a Senate hearing on the issue, which could take up the wilderness areas as well.