WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, Oregon's only Republican member of Congress, is pushing back against the proposed River Democracy Act in a letter sent Nov. 16 to all 62 county commissioners in his mostly rural district.

The bill, proposed by Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, would add nearly 4,700 miles of designated wild and scenic rivers across Oregon, and calls for widening protective stream buffers from a quarter-mile to a half-mile on both sides.

According to Wyden, the River Democracy Act was developed based on more than 15,000 nominations from 2,500 Oregonians. It has garnered criticism from county officials, as well as the timber and ranching industries, wary of new land restrictions and regulations.

In his letter, Bentz stated he is opposed to the legislation and that, despite receiving a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it remains far from a done deal.

For example, he said the River Democracy Act does not have a companion bill in the House, nor has it received any consideration in the chamber to date. 

"My Oregon House colleagues, all Democrats, have not publicly supported this bill," Bentz said. "At the time of writing this letter, (it) only has the support of Oregon's two senators." 

The Capital Press contacted Oregon's four other House members — Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio — to ask if they supported the River Democracy Act. None responded to requests for comment. 

Bentz, whose district represents all or part of 20 counties in eastern, central and southern Oregon, said the majority of county commissioners have expressed serious concerns about the bill, which he called "a flawed proposal based on an exclusive and secretive process that would undermine public access to, and responsible management of, Oregon's natural resources."

The commissioners in at least three Eastern Oregon counties — Wallowa, Union and Grant — have objected to the bill. The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, and the Oregon Cattlemen's Association have also raised objections.

Those issues were outlined by Bentz in his letter. They range from a lack of consultation with local elected officials and experts, to how the wild and scenic river designations might affect multiple land uses including timber harvest, livestock grazing, mining and outdoor recreation. 

With half-mile stream buffers on either side, the River Democracy Act adds up to about 3 million acres of protected land, or an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

Wyden defended the bill during a virtual town hall meeting on Aug. 31, assuring constituents the bill contains language explicitly to protect existing private property rights. 

Responding to written questions from the Association of Oregon Counties, Wyden said protections under the National Wild and Scenic River Act are not the same as wilderness areas. Motorized access and mechanical forest treatments are allowed, and often encouraged to improve the ecological function of the watershed. 

The River Democracy Act actually goes a step further, Wyden said, and requires land management agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to assess wildfire risks in each wild and scenic river corridor.

A spokesman for Wyden, Hank Stern, said it is puzzling why Bentz would oppose a bill aimed at stepping up wildfire management. 

"Sen. Wyden believes this legislation can pass the Senate if it gets a fair review on what's actually in the bill, rather than meritless and made-up claims," Stern said in an email. 

As for the House, Stern said Wyden has had discussions with members of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

That said, it is not a requirement to have companion legislation in order for the bill to pass both chambers.

Bentz, however, said local elected officials in his district are worried the bill would open the door for special interest groups to file frivolous lawsuits targeting management activities, while requiring understaffed agencies to produce expensive and time-consuming river plans.

Before the bill moves forward, Bentz said Wyden and Merkley should release detailed maps and analyses of the proposed wild and scenic river segments for public review.

Stern said the bill includes legal descriptions of all proposed streams and rivers. Nominations for wild and scenic rivers are still being added and removed as staff continues to meet with stakeholders. 

"Maps will be finalized well before the Senate votes on the bill, and be made immediately available," Stern said. 

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