Others Say 7/5/13

Wyden may widen wilderness areas

The U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved legislation that would give tens of thousands of acres of Oregon’s wildest forests and rivers permanent wilderness status — the highest level of protection that federal law can confer.

The committee is chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who is in prime position to protect more wild places in his state, which has a disproportionately small amount of wilderness compared to other Western states.

Currently, 4 percent of Oregon is protected as wilderness, compared with 15 percent of California, 10 percent of Washington and 8 percent of Idaho.

Wyden’s Oregon Treasures bill would expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness by 60,000 acres and create 17,000 acres of wilderness along the John Day River in Central Oregon. It also would extend Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections to the Chetco River in southwestern Oregon and the Molalla River south of Portland.

If these proposals sound familiar, it’s for good reason. They’re nearly identical to measures that have been blocked time and again in recent sessions.

Opponents argue that the country has enough wilderness already, and that wilderness designations waste tax dollars and prevent the extraction of valuable resources from public lands.

Those opponents might reflect that wilderness areas cost the government surprisingly little money, and that there is an abundant supply of public land available for mining, logging and drilling but an inadequate inventory of protected wilderness.

Small-government, pro-business members of Congress might also be surprised to learn that their patron saint, President Ronald Reagan, signed more wilderness bills than any other president, Democratic or Republican.

Despite opposition, it’s still possible to get wilderness legislation through Congress. In a hopeful and surprising development, the full Senate last Thursday passed the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Act, which would protect 30,000 acres in the Oregon Coast Range.

In 2009, lawmakers approved a bipartisan public lands bill that designated 2.1 million acres as wilderness in nine states, including 125,000 acres of new Mount Hood wilderness in Oregon.

There is talk in Congress of another omnibus bill in the current session, and Wyden’s Oregon Treasures bill and the Devil’s Staircase proposal should be first in line if that happens. The best way to ensure that Oregon wilderness proposals are included is to have them ready to go — vetted and approved by the relevant congressional committee in each chamber.

Thanks to Wyden, that has already happened in the Senate. In the House, similar wilderness provisions are part of a proposal by Reps. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden for logging and preservation in Western Oregon’s federal forests.

Given the long odds of the forest-management proposal winning approval in the current session, DeFazio should enhance the chances of the Oregon wilderness proposals being included in an omnibus bill by introducing them as individual measures and pushing for their approval by the House Resources Committee. Some heavy leaning by the Republican Walden may also be required, given the opposition of committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., to new wilderness designations.

There was a time when presidents and congresses worked across party lines to protect the nation’s wild areas. It takes a different strategy these days, and Oregon’s delegation should be ready to add to the state’s — and the nation’s — store of protected wilderness when the next omnibus public lands bill emerges in Congress.

— The Register-Guard



Farm bill without GMO labeling will become law of land

Last month, the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have allowed states to require the labeling of genetically modified food.

The vote to reject the amendment wasn’t close: It failed on a 71-27 vote. (Oregon’s senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both were in the minority that favored the amendment.)

The Senate then went ahead and passed the Farm Bill — that mammoth collection of legislation that Congress typically renews every five years. But a couple weeks ago, the House of Representatives rejected the entire thing: Some Democrats were outraged over the cuts the bill sought in the nation’s food stamp program. Some Republicans were outraged that the bill didn’t cut back enough on subsidies for farmers.

In Oregon, where agriculture is big business, the lack of a Farm Bill isn’t good news for farmers — it throws another uncertainty onto an enterprise already beset with uncertainties. Our hope is that at some point, Congress will come to its senses and pass a Farm Bill — although the notion of Congress coming to its senses does seem increasingly remote.

But if you’re thinking the genetically modified amendment might be resurrected in the next version of the Farm Bill, dream on. It’s not going to happen.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require the labeling. But organic food companies and some consumer groups are pushing for the labels, arguing that modified seeds are floating from field to field and contaminating pure crops. (The recent scare involving modified wheat growing in a field in Oregon is a case in point.)

As The Associated Press explained in a story about the Senate vote, genetically modified plants are grown from seeds engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or otherwise improve crop yields. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States have been genetically modified.

Agriculture companies say genetically modified products help boost crop production, lower prices at the grocery store and feed the world. The FDA and Agriculture Department say the engineered foods are safe.

However, a growing number of consumers increasingly are wary of processed and modified foods.

Even if Congress doesn’t change its mind on the issue, the power of the market could: Companies that want to serve that growing market of wary consumers have a golden opportunity to make inroads by voluntarily doing the reverse of what the amendment would have required: proudly stating, on their labels, that their products are GMO-free.

Consumers would have a chance to vote on this matter with their wallets every time they shopped, and in a positive way. You can bet that farmers, typically close watchers of the market, would pay attention.

Eventually, perhaps, even Congress would take heed.

— The Albany Democrat-Herald



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