Congress passed a new Farm Bill on Wednesday that also contains several provisions aimed at reducing the severity of Western wildfires. And that left the Oregon delegation divided along familiar battle lines.

Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents fire-prone eastern Oregon, criticized Democrats in the Senate for blocking provisions that would have eased environmental rules on logging.

“[W]hen we’re losing towns and people and firefighters, and our communities are choked with smoke, we can do better,” Walden said on the House floor. He wound up voting for what he said was overall a “pretty good bill” that authorizes a wide range of agricultural programs.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said he successfully pushed to increase the amount of money for forest thinning projects overseen by collaborative groups from $40 million to $80 million.

“The process involves bringing together all kinds of different stakeholders to work out a plan” for thinning and brush removal projects, Merkley said in an interview. “And that keeps it out of the courts.”


The Eagle Creek Fire as seen from the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017. 

The Eagle Creek Fire as seen from the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017. 

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

He argued that the Republican proposals would have taken logging on federal lands “back to authorizing clear-cuts on a massive scale with basically no environmental review.” He argued this would worsen the problem by allowing the removal of larger more fire-resistant trees, opening the way for denser forests that burn hotter.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said in a statement that the Farm Bill contains “proven wildfire approaches.” And he said the “provisions Congressman Walden is complaining about failing to get in the most recent Farm Bill were simply masking a Republican Christmas wish list for further environmental degradation.”

The House version of the Farm Bill would have doubled — to 6,000 acres — the size of logging projects exempted from environmental review. And it also included provisions to allow additional salvage logging in burned areas.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other Trump administration officials also argued for loosened logging rules in the wake of the deadly wildfires that hit California in the last several months.

“For too long, our forest management efforts have been thwarted by lawsuits from misguided, extreme environmentalists,” Zinke said in a Sept. 2 op-ed in The Sacramento Bee following the massive Carr Fire in northern California. “The time has come to act without flinching in the face of threatened litigation.”

But Senate Democrats — along with some Republican colleagues — pushed back against the changes, which were also fiercely opposed by environmental groups.

In addition to adding money for collaborative forestry work, the legislation gives local and state government more funding and authority to work on projects aimed at reducing fuel loads on forests and rangelands.