At least three counties in rural Eastern Oregon are raising objections to the River Democracy Act, an ambitious federal bill that would add nearly 4,700 miles of wild and scenic rivers across the state.

Grant County commissioners approved sending a letter to the bill's architects, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, opposing the bill in February.

The Wallowa County Board of Commissioners opposed the legislation in a resolution passed July 21, citing impacts to ranching, forest management, public access and recreation.

Commissioners in neighboring Union County also sent a letter July 6 to Wyden and Merkley, outlining similar concerns.

Representatives for Wyden and Merkley will meet Aug. 10 with the Eastern Oregon Counties Association to brief commissioners on the bill.

The association's members include Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Klamath, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties.

Created in 1968, the National Wild and Scenic River System calls for preserving certain rivers with "outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values." Oregon currently has 2,173 miles of rivers designated as wild and scenic, or 2% of all rivers statewide. 

The River Democracy Act would roughly triple that number. It was developed based on more than 15,000 nominations submitted by 2,500 Oregonians, according to Wyden's office. 

But county commissioners worry the proposal — which widens protective stream buffers from a quarter-mile to a half-mile on both sides — will lead to greater restrictions for timber harvest, livestock grazing and outdoor recreation that power their local economies.

"I think it's a way to push people off the land," said Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts. "I think that's where we're headed." 

Intermittent streams

The River Democracy Act would total approximately 3 million acres of newly protected land. That's an area roughly the size of Connecticut. 

Wyden began soliciting nominations from the public for proposed wild and scenic river designations in October 2019. The nominations were announced in February 2020.

In October 2020 — four months before the bill was introduced — Wyden sent two letters to the Association of Oregon Counties seeking input from local elected officials, though Roberts said she and her colleagues were never consulted directly. 

"We can't find any commissioner, other than the one who might have received the letter in the first place, who knew about this," she said. "Especially when it's this impactful to your county, your economics and your people who live here, to me, it was extremely rude and a slap in the face." 

The bill would add 404 miles of wild and scenic rivers in Wallowa County. Despite repeated requests, Roberts said neither Wyden or Merkley have provided commissioners with detailed maps showing how the county would be affected.

Commissioners instead hired Anderson Perry & Associates, a consulting and engineering firm based in La Grande, to do mapping earlier this year. In their resolution, commissioners stated most of the proposed designations are not actually labeled as "rivers," are not free-flowing and do not carry water year-round.

"Many of the nominations are creeks or headwaters that carry snowmelt during the spring and early summer, and are dry for the remainder of the year," the commissioners wrote. "We fail to understand Wild and Scenic Act protection of free flow for intermittent streams that carry water only a few months of the year."

The American Forest Resources Institute, a timber industry group, offered the same criticism in its analysis of the bill, finding that just 15% of nominated waterways in the bill are actually labeled as "rivers."

Environmental groups and Wyden both have pushed back against this complaint, arguing that small and ephemeral streams are not only allowed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but are critical for protection.

In a previous statement, Wyden said 1.7 million Oregonians receive drinking water from public systems that rely at least in part on intermittent, ephemeral or headwater streams.

'Adamantly opposed'

Under the bill, federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would have six years to write a comprehensive plan for the newly designated stream corridors, collaborating with state and county governments. 

In particular, Wyden said the bill aims to mitigate wildfire risk in the riparian areas that haven't been prioritized until now. 

Even with that assurance, Roberts said concerns remain. She said the agencies themselves admit they are short-staffed and ill-equipped to handle the additional workload. 

"We have no rules for this. We have no idea what this means for the future," Roberts said. 

In a letter sent April 13 to Wyden, the Wallowa County commissioners said wild and scenic river buffers could eliminate mechanical harvest of timber and forest thinning, "or at least make it extremely difficult and controversial." 

"If you can't get in to those areas, because they're all tied up with hundreds of restrictions ... that's what's scary to me," Roberts said. 

The bill also states it would not affect existing grazing permits, but ranchers worry it could require them to build miles of new fences, increase stubble height requirements and exclude reopening closed or vacant grazing allotments. 

Rep. Cliff Bentz, who serves as Oregon's only Republican member of Congress, said he has spoken with all 63 county commissioners that make up his mostly rural district, which covers 20 counties and 69,000 square miles. 

Of those, he estimated all but 10 were "adamantly opposed" to the River Democracy Act.

"They were opposed for all kinds of reasons, but the one thing that seemed to be consistent throughout is they had not heard from the senator regarding the proposal," Bentz said.   

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