The forum focused on issues related to forest policy, water legislation, and the current state of partisan politics

by: JASON CHANEY - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden addressed a crowd of about 40 people at the Prineville Senior Center on Saturday afternoon.

As U.S. Senator Ron Wyden took the podium on Saturday in Prineville, he immediately encouraged everyone to sit closer and fill the empty front-row seats.

He called the relatively light crowd of about 40 people at the Prineville Senior Center an ideal amount, and took time to compliment the fashion sense of Crook County Judge Mike McCabe, who had just introduced the senator moments earlier.

"Gray jacket and a purple shirt," Wyden quipped. "That is what they are all wearing back east."

The pleasant mood of the forum remained throughout as visitors voiced a variety of concerns from forest management and pending water legislation to federal health care and partisan politics.

Much of the meeting focused on forest legislation. Wyden discussed the intent of his eastside forest bill, which was crafted with input from both timber executives and environmentalist groups.

"We have got to get people back to work in the woods," he said, "which means getting around some of this litigation that just defies common sense. My view is people have a right to have a concern about a forest sale, but they don't have a constitutional right to a five-year delay."

Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley expressed concerns about the future of public safety funding, stressing that it depends, in part, on county timber payments.

"The PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) funds and different funds have been dwindling over the years," Hensley said. "We really need assistance on getting the funds we can get from those things."

Regarding the timber funds, Wyden said his is going to look for a way to make common cause between all parts of the U.S. where there is federal land and water.

"In virtually all of these communities there are sensible people trying to do multiple uses," he said.

Bowman Dam legislation was also discussed as three different audience members questioned Wyden on the status of two pending bills. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) sponsored one bill that passed the House while another bill created by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) awaits action in the Senate's Energy and Natural Resource Committee that Wyden chairs.

Both bills seek to allocate water for the City of Prineville and move Crooked River's federal Wild and Scenic boundary off of Bowman Dam to allow construction of a hydroelectric power plant.

"Prineville needs water and it needs it yesterday," Wyden said. "I think both Sen. Merkley and Congressman Walden have done very good work on this and we're trying to make sure that there is a real and tangible benefit to Prineville and its farmers and fish. My sense is we are in the home stretch."

Nevertheless, Prineville resident John Breese later questioned how Wyden would marry two bills that are so different from each other. Wyden countered that the bills are very similar, and have only slight differences related to fish habitat and environment, leaving him little concern on finding common ground.

"Historically, what you do with these kinds of things is you try to see if you can get everybody together," he said. "Once you get people together, you can ping-pong back and forth between the House and the Senate."

This was not the first time the theme of working together emerged during the town hall. Prineville resident Steve Johnson had earlier broached the topic of partisan politics and how it keeps Congress from getting important work done.

"I keep hearing from Washington that we're blaming the Republicans, we're blaming the Tea Party, we're blaming the Democrats," Johnson remarked. "Everyone is to blame back there."

In response, Wyden said that his No. 1 goal in public service is to break through the gridlock and polarization of partisan politics. He went on to highlight multiple times where he worked with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on legislation.

Wyden went on to attribute the political climate, in part, to the advent of opinion-based news networks.

"When I was coming up, I never imagined that we would have ideological TV in America," he said. "Today, we have television shows for liberal people that just kind of reinforce everything they've got to say, and we have got television shows for conservative people that just reinforce everything they have to say."

Wyden concluded his town hall by complimenting the collective audience as well as the visitors from forums past.

"I always find visits to Crook County consistently informative and interesting," he said. "You all are never dull, and always ask about the issues that really represent some of the things that ought to go on in Washington, D.C., and don't go on in Washington, D.C."

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