The Malheur County Court was correct to express concerns regarding S. 192, known as the River Democracy Act that would significantly expand Wild and Scenic river designations in Oregon along with half-mile buffers restricting land management. This is a response to an Aug. 15 opinion criticizing the court for adopting a resolution opposing the bill.

Many rural citizens across the West are frustrated with federal land management. Public lands access continues to be reduced. Traditional uses such as timber harvesting and grazing have been restricted further. Entire communities are being wiped off the map from catastrophic wildfire due to the lack of active forest management.

There is a perception that statewide elected officials are only responsive to urban voters and special interests. The River Democracy Act, which is being actively promoted by Willamette Valley environmentalist groups, seems to reinforce that perception. The fact the Court was compelled to adopt this resolution suggests proponents did not engage county leaders before Sens. Wyden and Merkley introduced this legislation and held hearings in Washington DC.

While public lands belong to all Americans, rural citizens are personally and immediately impacted by well-intended yet misguided policies. On proposals such as the River Democracy Act, those who live, work and play in these areas deserve as much of a voice, if not more, as those living in Portland, New York City and Washington DC.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was enacted to preserve certain rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition.” The 1968 Act provides a mechanism for robust study and review of proposed waterways to ensure they are eligible or suitable for designation.

S. 192 bypasses this study and review process, unilaterally adding nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon “rivers” to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. That’s an increase of 124%. While several iconic Oregon rivers are worthy of this distinction, many waterways identified in the bill are not even classified as rivers. According to a list provided by the bill’s sponsors, just 15 percent of the proposed segments in S. 192 are actually rivers.

Most are small creeks, streams, gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries, many of which do not even carry water during the dry summer months. Similar to congressionally-designated wilderness, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 imposes management and access restrictions along waterways and associated buffers designated as “Wild and Scenic.” As many rural citizens know too well, federal courts have consistently upheld legal challenges to land management activities on the basis of these designations.

The Aug. 15 opinion-writer questions the amount of federal land encumbered by the half-mile buffers, where management restrictions would be applied to these hundreds of small creeks, streams, gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries. Buffers on each side equal 640 acres per square mile. When multiplied by 4,700 miles, over 3,000,000 acres of lands are impacted, which is double the acreage impact of S. 192 compared to the traditional one-quarter mile buffers provided to Wild and Scenic rivers under the 1968 Act.

For a bill that makes such significant land use changes, there are many unanswered questions about the River Democracy Act. What is this bill trying to protect these “rivers” from? What management tools does it provide that agencies don’t already have? How does it improve the quality of life and economies in rural communities? Until these simple questions are answered, the Malheur County Court has many reasons to be wary.

NICK SMITH is director of public affairs for the American Forest Resource Council, a regional trade association representing the forest products sector. He also is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of Oregon’s federally owned forests. The opinions and comments here do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Argus Observer.

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