Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) visited with Lake County’s citizenry in a Town Hall-style meeting held at Lakeview High School on Saturday, Feb. 15.
The senator met first with local public officials in the library for a half-hour discussion of some of the most pressing issues of concern before hosting the public meeting in the cafeteria.
A common thread running through both sessions primarily circled the BLM’s draft sage grouse management plan environmental impact statement and federal funding for such rural areas as Lake County. The preferred alternative expressed by the BLM would potentially remove cattle grazing from up to 118,000 acres throughout eastern Oregon. Adel rancher John O’Keeffe was among those that discussed the issue with Merkley prior to the public gathering, noting that ranchers will “live or die” by its implementation.
Others during the public session expressed concerns for the potential economic impact to local communities should the proposal for extensive grazing removal come to pass.
Merkley said that he believes local stakeholders can develop a plan to keep the bird from receiving a national listing, and the goal should focus on how to study what works and what doesn’t as far as protecting the sage grouse species.
“We all have a collective goal, here, of staying out of the federal listing,” he said.
Collins Companies/Lakeview Sawmill Resource Mgr. Lee Fledderjohann spoke on other natural resource-related concerns, namely the continuation replanting and rehabilitation efforts associated with the 93,000-acre Barry Point Fire of 2012.
The senator noted that the recent passage of the Farm Bill also included retroactive funding for disaster relief inclusive of that event, and reflected on the difficulty in passing bills for needed funding during the current sequestration period.
During the public meeting, a question was raised on the legality of the EPA administering the PM Advance program through which the Town and County are developing an air quality management strategy. Merkley said he didn’t know the answer to the legal question, but said local stakeholders make sense in the search for a local solution.
Sheriff Phil McDonald expressed frustration with restrictions on federal Title III funds, which locally support such organizations as Lake County Search and Rescue operations. Planned actions, such as a raid against a known drug operation, cannot utilize the funds as a planned operation is not considered an emergency response, he said.
Merkley said he’s advocated for changes related to this policy and said he’s well aware of other sheriffs with similar frustrations.
“We haven’t won that battle yet, but we’ll keep pushing,” he said.
Regarding proposed restrictions on magazine sizes, Merkley said there have been cases in school shooting incidents where a perpetrator fumbled while changing out a smaller clip, and afforded outside intervention in which someone was able to overcome the shooter. This was also a topic that never got to a final vote in the Senate, he said.
Some questions addressed the Affordable Health Care Act. Merkley acknowledged the trouble-plagued Cover Oregon and issues related to its web site, and noted an investigation has been called to find out what went wrong with its operation.
He also highlighted a number of positives, including new requirements that mandate insurance companies to spend 80 percent of their funds on health care.
There are also 40,000 young adults with health insurance as a result of the AHCA’s provision for young adults up to 26 years of age being allowed on their parents’ policy. An emphasis on prevention services is also making strides toward reducing health care costs, Merkley said.