Standing up for the River Democracy Act

County commissions from Northeast Oregon’s Union, Wallowa and Grant counties oppose the River Democracy Act, the legislation authored by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to designate an additional 4,700 miles of Oregon’s waterways as Wild and Scenic. Each county has raised the same rationale for their opposition. It is as if they’ve timed their votes and public announcements to ensure that one news article after another repeats these claims. But in the hullabaloo there’s a problem — they are making claims about the River Democracy Act that are largely untrue in an effort to have Northeast Oregon excluded wholesale from the effort to protect more of Oregon’s watersheds.


Wall Creek's junction with the North Fork John Day River. Photo by Jamie Dawson.

We’d like to ensure the record is set straight, and we need your help. Northeast Oregon’s many rivers and streams are indeed wild. Water is the sustaining life of this region’s ecological function. Northeast Oregon has more miles of undammed and free flowing watersheds than almost anywhere else in the continental United States. And we would wager that each and every one of our Northeast Oregon county commissioners would agree that we live in the most scenic corner of our state. So how could it be that, as a recent Capital Press editorial argued, we already have enough miles of protected wild and scenic rivers when just 2% of river miles in the whole state are currently designated as such? (The River Democracy Act would increase this total to 6%).


The four main arguments being espoused by the commissions are that the River Democracy Act will reduce the ability to graze cattle, hurt efforts to protect communities from wildfires, infringe on private property rights, and that the proposed additions were identified without Senator Wyden first consulting the county commissioners.


The River Democracy Act calls for ½-mile interim boundaries, which serve as administrative boundaries for future management plans. The Act contains no prohibitions on logging, grazing, recreation, prescribed burning, wildfire management or other management activities within these areas. It does not designate waterways on private property, and the process initiated by Senator Wyden to identify deserving rivers and streams encouraged anyone to submit a nomination.


County commissions are claiming this was not a democratic process. According to the opposition editorials and commentary they provided, direct democracy in rural counties is subservient to the gatekeeping efforts of the commissioners.


The repetition of these false and misleading talking points clarifies who is driving the opposition. One of the more head scratching complaints about the Act comes from the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry lobbying group, which takes umbrage at the fact that in addition to named rivers, the legislation would include named creeks. In another, the Wallowa County Commission argued, without offering a rationale, that adding river protections would hurt recreation. A Wallowa County commissioner even went so far as to suggest that the Act is an underhanded effort to remove people from public lands.


Senator Wyden took a lead role in a film produced by Pacific Rivers about the River Democracy Act, explaining why this effort is so near and dear to him, and taking aim at the false narratives being spread about the legislation. However, we know from past efforts that we must show public support from all corners of Oregon. While the same few voices may seek to quiet our resolve, we need to show how much we want to protect our headwater streams and free flowing rivers.


To see this effort succeed, and to ensure the River Democracy Act doesn’t get passed without waterways in Northeast Oregon included, we need to make a show of support. For one, we need more people who live in the region to write Letters to the Editor in our local papers in support of the River Democracy Act. We need to show up at Town Halls, such as the one Senator Wyden is holding virtually this upcoming Tuesday. And while public demonstrations of support are wonderful, you can always call or write Senators Wyden and Merkley.


Let this be our call to action on behalf of Northeast Oregon’s free flowing and life sustaining waters we all love. Let it be a legacy we’ll be reminded of each time we fish, hike, swim, paddle, hunt, ski, bike, birdwatch, or simply spend time outdoors in this place we call home.

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