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Natural resources discussion sets 'Legislative Days' tone

I’m writing to you from Salem as I meet with my colleagues in the first of three “Legislative Days” set aside to review previous legislation and set the course for the next session in February. 

Our Capital, like the rest of our state right now, is beautiful under sunny skies in these first days of fall. Crisp evenings are replacing the hot, dry summer that we have experienced, and for many of us it is a welcomed relief, especially those who have fought to protect lives and property during this brutal fire season. With these experiences still vivid in our minds, my House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee gathered to listen to an overview of the situation. We also reviewed another crucial component of our state’s economy, the state of agriculture in a changing environment. First, let’s look at our fire management efforts.

I know that I speak for all Oregonians in recognizing the heroic efforts of our first responders who worked tirelessly to protect lives and property during this difficult time. Most of us could only watch in horror as we saw over 650,000 acres, an area greater than 1,000 square miles mostly in eastern and southern Oregon, go up in flames. The public rallied where they could to assist our professionals and, later, the National Guard. 

I’d like to give a shout out to a group of people who also made themselves available during these terrible times but whose efforts are often overlooked, our private forest owners and operators. They brought their equipment, knowledge of the terrain and other crucial information to the firefighting operation. Although we were blessed to have escaped major fire damage in District 31, the threat is not over. We will continue to depend on the eyes and ears of our local logging industry to keep us aware until we get that drenching rain that we so desperately need. During the hearing, it also became apparent to the committee that the costs of fire suppression have become increasingly onerous for both public and private sectors. The estimated cost for the 2015 fire season is now approaching $74 million, and this does not include the cost of lost timber, grasslands, wildlife habitat, erodible lands, etc.   

We also have an emerging issue facing us with respect to our federal forests, which have become hazardous for a number of reasons. They are overcrowded, dying, poorly accessed with few roads, and sometimes infested with disease. My committee will continue to investigate this issue and work to find a better way to work with our federal partners to pay for a burden that is becoming increasingly unmanageable.

The second issue before the committee involved an overview of the changing face of agriculture in Oregon, an industry that makes up 15 percent of our economy and provides one in every 10 jobs. The industry continues to diversify both in the nature of the products and the markets to which they are sold.  Oregon has seven unique growing regions but each faces the same challenges: water to grow their crops, labor to grow and harvest their products, and a marketplace to sell those products.

In spite of these commonalities, the agriculture community is also enduring certain stresses that threaten the common good. We have new crops being introduced, such as hemp and marijuana.  We have the understandable tension between organic, non-organic and GMO products. The industry has had to contend with labor disputes at the Port of Portland that has severely impacted their ability to transport products, and Congress’s inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform places a mantle of instability over the entire industry. 

As chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, it has become clear to me that we cannot allow the problems to overshadow the solutions. The agriculture community must continue to strive for common ground for the benefit of both the industry and the entire state. We have much to celebrate in this beautiful state and much of it has to do with the richness of our natural resources. Whether it’s the forest or the field, let’s work toward solutions that will preserve what makes Oregon the great place to live and work that we have come to expect. We can do this. 

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, represents Oregon’s 31st District.