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Rep. Greg Walden visits with Crook County and Prineville leaders to discuss local issues

HOLLY SCHOLZ/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - U.S. Rep. Greg Walden visited with city and county leaders last week to discuss local issues.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden paid a visit to Prineville Wednesday afternoon, inviting local leaders to share their concerns.

"I thought it'd be good to get together and hear what's going on in Crook County and Prineville and give you a little update on some of the work we've been doing in the Congress in the last year-plus," Walden said.

Eleven representatives from the county, city and chamber discussed local issues with Walden and two of his staff members during an informal luncheon held at the COCC Crook County Open Campus.

Topics of the 70-minute discussion included wildfires, Juniper Canyon access, the local economy, the lack of trade workers, trails, data centers, power, roads, hemp and wild horses.

"We passed the biggest tax cuts and reform of the tax codes since Ronald Reagan was president, and it's had the effect we thought it would, which was really to boost the economy and get America's economy up and growing like it's capable of doing," Walden said at the start of the discussion.

The Republican who represents 20 counties in Central, Southern and Eastern Oregon said instead of hearing about high taxes or too much regulation, he now hears that business owners are having trouble finding people to work for them.

"We actually have more jobs available in America today than we have people to fill them, and that's unprecedented," Walden said. "This economy is as strong as it has ever been in the last 20 or 30 years."

Travis Garner, Parr Lumber manager and chamber board member, agrees.

"I've felt the sting of looking for qualified applicants to fill positions this year," he said, also noting that there is a lack of trades people in the industry, which in turn holds up construction jobs.

Walden pointed out that Congress just passed legislation that reworks some federal programs to try to encourage and help students learn trade skills such as construction and welding.

"We're trying to adjust the federal programs to focus more on the actual labor needs and on these trades and simplify," he said. "It's a work in progress."

Walden noted that Congress passed forestry legislation earlier this year that allows for more efficient work in the woods to reduce fuel loads.

"I strongly support requirement that after a fire, you cut the burned dead trees where it makes sense and replant a new green, growing forest," he said.

He noted that firefighters have trouble getting into the woods to fight the fires because the access roads have been closed.

"We've got more work to do on the fire front," Walden said.

He also mentioned that as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Air Act, he will take up the topic of the human health impacts from the wildfire smoke.

Crook County Road Department Roadmaster Bob O'Neal asked for Walden's help with the Bureau of Land Management. The department received a grant last year to chip seal a 15-mile roadway, but BLM won't sign the agreement until an archaeological study is conducted at a cattle guard site.

"They're basically holding the project up, and it's a $1 million project," O'Neal said.

"I can assure you, BLM will be hearing from us," Walden told O'Neal.

Crook County Judge Seth Crawford reminded Walden that Juniper Canyon is currently the largest cul-de-sac in the state of Oregon — 26 miles — and could cause some serious loss of property and lives should a wildfire get out of control.

"What I would like to see is a road that hugs the reservoir at the very back of the canyon be approved so that we can get cars out of there," Crawford said. "If we could get some kind of grant from the federal government, we just need to widen a few areas, smooth out a couple lips that are in there, and we could make a real good escape route."

Walden recognizes the importance of the escape route but acknowledged that it sounded like a long-term project but one they needed to get working on.

Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester provided a data center update, noting that Facebook is constructing its fourth building, which is about a million square feet.

Walden was pleased to hear that 30 to 40 percent of the Facebook construction workers are Crook County residents and that roughly 500 Crook County residents are employed inside Facebook and Apple.

The two companies continue to invest in the city's infrastructure.

Forrester pointed out that the City of Prineville Railway continues to gain strength, having recently added McCall Oil to their list of customers.

He also asked Walden to clarify the hemp growing regulations.

"Hemp actually has a lot of properties for industrial uses and chemicals that can be used for health purposes," Walden said, noting that hemp does not have the same THC levels that are in the marijuana. "It could actually be a very good, sustainable agricultural product."

He says growing hemp as an agricultural product requires a change in federal law, and he sits on the committee that oversees that.

"I think you'll see us move a bill to open it up just like any other agricultural product," Walden said.

Prineville City Councilor Steve Uffelman brought up the wild horse population that is causing problems for ranchers.

"Nobody wants these wild horses," Walden said. "You can't euthanize them, there's a ban on kind of horse meat slaughter, and meanwhile, the population grows, the range gets trampled, and the cattle get kicked off, and that's the fight we're having."

At the conclusion of the meeting, Walden thanked those in attendance and said, "I guess we've got a few new things to work on."

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