Adviser: 'We need to be more strategic in terms of how we use our resources'
By MITCH LIES
EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon farmers have excelled in protecting water quality, but more can be done, according to Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources policy adviser.
"The 10-year vision for the governor in this area is we want to be able to say to citizens we are moving in the right direction, that everywhere in the state water quality is continuing to improve," Whitman said.
In the key note address at the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts' annual conference here Nov. 8, Whitman said Kitzhaber is proposing to increase funding for water-quality programs in the budget he is preparing for the 2013 legislative session.
And, Whitman said, Kitzhaber is looking at strategically focusing those resources.
"We need to be more strategic in terms of how we use our resources," Whitman said. "We can't do everything everywhere.
"The agricultural community has done a great job in terms of improving water quality," Whitman said. "But there are some indications that there are certain areas of the state where things are not going in the right direction, where water quality in terms of particular parameters is declining.
"And that is a cause of concern," Whitman said.
Whitman told district conservationists and state officials gathered at the conference that Oregon is considered a leader in its agricultural and forest water-quality programs.
"Our forest practices act was first in the nation," Whitman said, as was the agricultural water quality program created by Senate Bill 1010.
"In terms of dealing with water-quality issues in our forest and agricultural lands, they are seen as real models around the country," he said.
"That said, when we talk to citizens about what you are most concerned about in terms of the (natural resources) department, what we regularly hear is water quality continues to be the No. 1 concern," Whitman said.
Whitman said the governor wants to work more closely with conservation districts, but doesn't plan to use the districts as "water-quality cops."
"You all are the eyes and ears in terms of agricultural water quality," Whitman said. "You work with farmers every day to help them improve water quality.
"What we want to do over the next couple of years is work more effectively with you to be more strategic about where we use our resources," he said.
"I'm not talking about enforcement," he said. "I'm not talking about water-quality cops focusing their attention on a particular area.
"I'm talking about focusing the technical and financial assistance that you do in areas where it is most needed," he said, "and building on those relationships that you have worked so hard to create throughout your history.
In a speech that included a wide-ranging look at Kitzhaber's natural resources policies, Whitman also said the governor is focused on restoring balance to federal forest management.
The hope, he said, is a panel convened by the governor will arrive at a proposal for congressional consideration that includes conservation protections and increased timber production on Oregon and California Revested Lands, commonly known as O&C Lands.
The federally owned O&C Lands comprise 2.6 million acres in 18 Western Oregon counties.
"In order to get something passed in Washington, we need strong support from our forest industry here in Oregon, our local governments here in Oregon that are so dependent on that timber revenue, and the conservationists here in Oregon," Whitman said.
"If we don't have that triad of support for a forest proposal, we are not going to get traction in Washington. You might get it past one house or the other, but we're going to need that collaborative, broad support for a proposal in order to get it passed," Whitman said.
"We should know within the next four to six weeks whether they are going to make headway and actually come up with a specific proposal," he said.
Whitman said improving management of federal forests in Oregon is critical for several reasons.
"It is critical in terms of the health of our forests," he said. "It is critical in terms of fire risk. It also is critical in terms of the fiscal health of our counties in Western Oregon, and in terms of employment.
"We still are the best place in the United States in growing timber," he said. "We still are the leading softwood producer in the United States. And restoring some balance to our federal forest management is a big piece of how we can get to a sustainable future for our timber dependent communities."
"In forestry, similarly, we are going to look at trying to be more strategic in terms of where we focus resources," Whitman said.
"There will be a package in the budget that is being prepared for the upcoming legislative session to put more resources into monitoring and to put more resource into on-the-ground efforts to improve water quality," he said.
"We aren't going to be effective in improving conditions for fish or improving water quality unless we are working cooperatively," he said. "This can't be just about regulation. This can't be about enforcement.
"We have got to work cooperatively with people, and they have to trust that we are there to help them, to work with them," Whitman said. "We are not there to give them a ticket or give them a fine."