Merkley lists timber payments as priority

Fresh off his campaign victory against Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, Jeff Merkley vowed Monday that in his first year in office he would push to open national forests to sensible logging and continue a federal program to support timber-dependent counties.

The Oregon Senator-elect appeared before about 50 campaign volunteers and Democratic leaders at the Higher Education Center in downtown Medford.

State Sen. Alan Bates, an Ashland Democrat, introduced Merkley, saying his friend and colleague in the Legislature fought great odds in defeating an incumbent and even mortgaged his house to help finance his campaign.

Statewide, Merkley won 49 percent of the vote to Smith's 46 percent and in Jackson County, 43 percent to Smith's 51 percent.

Merkley said his priority would be to support President-elect Barack Obama's efforts to improve the economy and the nation's infrastructure.

In his first year, Merkley said, he wants to see legislation that would protect old-growth forests while devising a way to thin overgrown forests to help the economy as well as protect against wildfires and disease.

"I've gone through so many stands where I say, 'This is a disaster,' " said Merkley, who describes himself as an avid hiker. "Let's find a way to thin those forests."

He said thinning trees in overgrown areas would provide more jobs, help local economies and boost tax revenues.

If a plan can't be devised fast enough, Merkley said he would push for a continuation of a federal county payments program that supports rural counties. Congress extended the program for four years as part of the $700 billion federal bailout bill passed in October. Jackson County recently had received $23 million annually from the payments plan.

In his first year, Merkley wants more federal grants to help communities deal with methamphetamine abuse, particularly in rural areas. He said he would like to see more police hired as part of that effort.

Ending predatory mortgage practices also will be a priority. He said too many families took out risky loans when they could have qualified for more conventional loans in recent years.

While Democrats don't have a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the U.S. Senate, Merkley said there are enough Republicans who would reach across the aisle to break the logjam of the past eight years. Merkley said there have been more than 90 filibusters in the Senate in the past two years.

"Let's no longer have the Senate as a place for good House bills to go to die," said Merkley.

Joining with President-elect Barack Obama and his fellow Oregon Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden, Merkley said he would seek to end the war in Iraq, give a tax break for those earning less than $250,000 and end the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"It's time to have an energy policy not written by big oil companies," he said.

Merkley said he expects an end to warrantless wiretapping, a return to the Geneva conventions for all prisoners and an end to U.S. practices of holding suspected enemy combatants in off-shore prisons without charges or legal redress.

"Now, the challenge must be that we seize this opportunity over the coming year," he said.

Merkley also said he would open an office in Medford and renewed his vow to visit each of Oregon's 36 counties at least once a year.

"It prevents you from being isolated in a bubble," he said.

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