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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oregon Hard Liner

Air Date: Week of

Despite a softening of the party line on environmental issues, Oregon's returning Congressman, Bob Smith, is giving no ground. He's back from retirement and heading the House Agriculture Committee. Ley Garnett reports on what may be in store for the nation's forests under Smith.


CURWOOD: There are some members of Congress who are not talking compromise on environmental issues. Among them is Bob Smith. Mr. Smith is reclaiming his seat as Oregon's second district representative. He stepped down in 1994 after serving 6 terms, but he was coaxed out of retirement last year by a promise from the House Republican leadership. The lure is the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee, which has charge over the nation's forests. And as Ley Garnett reports, Mr. Smith's return to Washington pleases many in the timber industry.

SMITH: There's been a war on the West. But if you elect me to Congress there's a warrior going to Congress.

(Applause and cheers)

GARNETT: Last August Bob Smith was breathing political fire as he addressed a special convention in Oregon's second Congressional district. The gathering of mostly conservative Republican political activists was called to nominate a new candidate after scandal-plagued Congressman Wes Cooley withdrew his bid for re-election. Outside the convention hall in Bend, Oregon, that day, several forest fires were raging on the horizon. They did not go unnoticed by Mr. Smith.

SMITH: Look at the smoke in the air this morning. That's the Clinton-Gore Forest Plan. Twenty percent of the timber in our forests are diseased. Twenty percent. We have 3 billion more feet of dead timber and we can't even salvage dead timber. That's their program. We've got to change it, and we will.

(Cheers and applause)

GARNETT: Bob Smith is a 65-year-old tall, stoop-shouldered political veteran. His views were shaped in Burns, an isolated town of 3,000, where ranching and logging provide most of the jobs. It is from this base that Mr. Smith is vowing to lead a revolution against the Clinton Administration's policies in the West.

SMITH: The Forest Service has been taken over by the biologist and the extremist environmentalist. I want to put the Forest Service back in the [?] hand, in the forest hands who can manage it better than anybody else including Clinton and Gore.


GARNETT: When Bob Smith talks about environmentalists, the adjectives such as extremist or even wacko are often attached. That brand of rhetoric will likely echo through the halls of Congress when Mr. Smith assumes control of the House Agriculture Committee. The Congressman will also sit on the House Resources Committee, and he says he hopes to have a hand in drafting legislation to amend the Endangered Species Act.

SMITH: The Endangered Species Act is making a mockery out of people. We ought to put people back in the Endangered Species Act, as well as the woolies and the short nose suckers and the rest. (Cheers and applause) And then we're going to put a priority on delisting endangered species, not listing -- they say whoa, there's not enough money for delisting studies. We got to have listing studies. Wrong, we're going to study delisting for a couple of years; how's that? (Cheers and applause)

MARLETTE: This guy is basically about 100 years behind the times. He still believes that we are operating under the laws of the open range and the wild West, and things just don't work that way any more.

GARNETT: Bill Marlette is the executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a group dedicated to removing livestock from public lands. Mr. Marlett calls Mr. Smith a smart politician who's enjoyed outmaneuvering environmentalists on issues such as private use of public lands.

MARLETTE: The lobbyists that represent the industry, I'm sure they're all delighted that Bob Smith is back. But it's not going to be a good day for the American public, whose public lands he's going to have in part some control over.

GARNETT: Bob Smith maintains close ties with the Oregon Lands Coalition, a consortium of natural resource industries and their workers. Judy Wortman, who heads the coalition, owns a cattle ranch and a small logging operation.

WORTMAN: The message that Bob Smith is already hearing from his grassroots people is that we need to temper our requests and what we say out there.

GARNETT: Mrs. Wortman says her group learned a hard lesson during the last Congressional session: that extreme political language is often counterproductive.

WORTMAN: Basically, what we need to do is change the laws that guide policy. And that's the challenge for grassroots people, and that will be the partnership between our grassroots families and communities and Bob Smith, is to work to change the laws, like the Endangered Species Act. He's a rancher. He's a community person. He's a feet on the ground kind of person that's in a place of power, and Bob Smith won't forget those hurts. He just won't.

GARNETT: Wortman admits the legislative goals of western Republicans have not changed. She says Idaho Senator Larry Craig's sweeping public lands bill is priority number one. Senator Craig's proposal, which Bob Smith has endorsed, would set up a procedure to turn management of Federal lands over to the states. It would also allow timber sales to be drawn up without scrutiny of Federal fish protection agencies, and would limit the public's legal right to challenge timber sales.

LYONS: The wrong approach is an approach that repeats an attempt to cut the public out of the process.

GARNETT: That's Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons, a key Clinton Administration official, who is likely to be called before Republican-controlled committees to defend White House policies on natural resources issues. Mr. Lyons, who oversees the US Forest Service, says the Administration will oppose efforts to limit citizen participation in timber management decisions.

LYONS: We certainly wouldn't support any attempt to erode the public's input into public land management. Quite to the contrary; I think we're going to look for ways to enhance it.

GARNETT: Undersecretary Lyons says he's wary of talk about changing the President's northwest forest plan. Instead, he wants to make the plan's ecosystem management approach a model for other national forests. Mr. Lyons also says the President would frown on legislation similar to the 1995 salvage logging rider. And this term, political scientist Russell Sadler from Ashland, Oregon, says President Clinton will be armed with a new weapon to prevent special interest amendments to legislation. Sadler says the line item veto will be bad news for Congressional committee chairs like Bob Smith.

SADLER: Bob Smith's power will be substantially diminished by something that did not exist when he served in Congress. Bill Clinton now has the line item veto, and it isn't restricted to financial items. Riders are a thing of the past. It's entirely possible that provisions that Bob Smith wants very badly will get vetoed in bills.

GARNETT: Line item vetoes aside, Bob Smith appears poised as a grizzled old gunfighter aiming a 6-shooter at the President's forest and environmental policies.

SMITH: I have the passion to win and I have the passion to serve. And I have the passion to take on the Clinton Administration for these many, many problems we have in eastern and southern Oregon.

GARNETT: Recent appointments announced by Congressman Smith appear to support his intentions. He selected an executive with Oregon's timber industry as policy advisor to the Agriculture Committee. And Mr. Smith's Congressional office will be managed by a former legislative assistant for the National Cattlemen's Association. Both groups have been harshly critical of Administration policies for managing natural resources on the Federal Government's vast land holdings in the West. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.



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