U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden addressed Malheur County in a vvirtual town hall on Friday, March 11. (The Enterprise/FILE)
VALE – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, touched on subjects from funding public health to immigration reform during a digital town hall meeting last week.
Wyden announced early in the meeting he’d now held more than 1,000 town halls since becoming senator.
Wyden’s overall theme during the session was what he called the “Oregon way,” a cooperative, bipartisan method to overcoming challenges.
“The Oregon way isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about creating opportunities for people,” he said.
Wyden recognized Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, for her work during the pandemic.
“When her community needed her, she didn’t run and hide,” said Wyden.
Poe thanked Wyden for the accolades and reminded the senator that more money is needed for public health in Oregon.
“Oregon is way below average,” said Poe.
Wyden agreed and referred to a $1.5 trillion fiscal omnibus bill, now under debate in Congress, where money is set aside for Covid relief.
“I and others have pressed hard to get the rural share up, because, look, we all know you can’t really predict another variant,” said Wyden.
Wyden said he has worked to “make the case to the leadership of both political parties, you got to get a more fair shake to rural communities.”
Wyden also addressed the future of the Owyhee Canyonlands.
Two years ago, Wyden spearheaded a effort on an agreement between ranchers, environmentalists and residents regarding the Canyonlands.
In November 2019, he announced the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act to safeguard the Canyonlands. The legislation was the result of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between environmentalists, conservation groups, local ranchers, state universities and federal agencies.
Wyden said he is still engaged in the Owyhee legislation.
“We will make sure we advance this bill and I won’t give up until we get it on the president’s desk,” said Wyden.
One question to the senator revolved around what is believed to be one of the largest lithium deposits in the U.S. along the Oregon-Idaho border in southern Malheur County.
Lithium is used to make batteries for cellphones, laptops and electric cars.
“As chairman of the (Senate) Finance Committee I have been heavily involved in the effort to create the classic win-win situation, where we tap the opportunity for good paying jobs and protect our treasures,” said Wyden.
Wyden also talked about the River Democracy Act, a piece of legislation he co-sponsored with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
Wyden and Merkley introduced legislation last year to protect nearly 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon as part of the national Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
The legislation is fair and will add needed protections to the landscape, Wyden said.
The legislation faced criticism last year and the Malheur County Court declared its opposition last August, citing, among a host of issues, that the bill is federal overreach.
The proposed legislation, said Wyden, will protect landowners and have no impact on grazing.
“We make it clear private property is sacrosanct. I know there may be some people spreading rumors and the like that this bill will harm people’s private property or make it harder to fight fire but I will tell you the facts show otherwise,” said Wyden.
Wyden also reiterated his support for community colleges.
Clint Shock, the former director of the Oregon State University Malheur County Experiment Station, asked Wyden if he would support more focused efforts to develop medicines – especially for pain – from plant sources.
“I very much share your view with respect to trying to look at plants in the agriculture sector for opportunities to relieve pain,” said Wyden.
He also said more effort should go into providing broadband coverage for Oregonians.
“We have 136,000 people who really don’t have that kind of connectivity in eastern Oregon. We know we are going to have to do a better job,” said Wyden.
The senator said immigration reform is stalled in Congress.
“We also need to make sure we have got the workers, and farmers have the workforce they need. They need to have fair wages and working conditions. We need to get Democrats and Republicans behind immigration reform,” said Wyden.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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