Having grown up on a cherry orchard in The Dalles, Ore., U.S. Rep. Greg Walden says he always had great admiration for the farmers and ranchers who feed the world.
In working to preserve their way of life during his 22 years in Congress, the Hood River resident found himself in the thick of two major conflicts affecting growers in his expansive eastern Oregon district: the Klamath Basin water wars, and the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
But while Walden racked up numerous successes during his tenure in Washington, D.C., including serving for two terms as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the underlying natural resource issues at the root of the Klamath and Malheur conflicts will be left for future legislators to resolve.
After announcing in 2019 he wouldn’t seek re-election an 11th time in 2020, the retiring Walden bade farewell to his House of Representatives colleagues last week.
“I am indeed thankful for the opportunity the people of Oregon have given me to represent them here in Congress,” Walden, 63, said in a floor speech. “It’s a responsibility I’ve always taken seriously as I faithfully tried to do my best to represent them.
'This is their office'
“After all, this is their office, not mine,” he said. “I was simply entrusted to use the powers bestowed upon it for their benefit, something I never forgot. It’s part of why I’ve returned home nearly every weekend and will soon complete my 644th roundtrip when Congress adjourns for the year.”
That trust will now be placed in former Oregon state Sen. Cliff Bentz, a Republican who defeated Democrat Alex Spenser and Libertarian Robert Werch in the Nov. 3 election.
Walden was exposed to politics at an early age, as the son of three-term Oregon state Rep. Paul E. Walden. Greg Walden credits his parents for teaching him the importance of giving back to the community, working hard and being honest.
But it was in media where the University of Oregon graduate got his start professionally.
“I wanted to thank those along the way who gave me career opportunities, including the folks at KTVF/KFRB Fairbanks who put a 17-year-old kid in charge of producing and directing the 11 p.m. nightly TV news,” he said.
Walden soon found his way into politics, though, serving as press secretary and chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Denny Smith before he was elected himself to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1988. He served until 1995 and also had a brief stint in the state Senate.
Klamath Basin water
Walden easily won election to Congress in 1998 after Rep. Bob Smith retired for a second – and final – time. Three years later, his district became Ground Zero for water fights when biological opinions on endangered suckers and threatened coho salmon led the Bureau of Reclamation to abruptly shut off irrigation water to about 1,200 farms in the Klamath Basin straddling the Oregon-California state line.
The so-called “bucket brigade” protests in 2001 drew some 18,000 participants from throughout the West and prompted then-President George W. Bush’s administration to boost deliveries to growers the following year, which environmentalists blamed for a subsequent die-off of about 70,000 salmon.
Water conflicts in the basin have heated up several times since then, including in 2020, when about 4,000 people held a tractor parade and rally to protest steeper planned water cutbacks. The bureau reversed its decision several weeks later.
Walden was a vocal opponent of a plan unveiled in 2010 by state and federal officials to remove four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon to ease fish passage.
He and other Republicans blocked the plan’s congressional authorization by an end-of-2015 deadline, although dam removal proponents have sought approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission instead. While the dams aren’t used for agriculture, some growers in the basin fear the dams’ removal could raise electricity rates and lead to further water cutbacks for farms.
Walden did push through a drought-relief bill for Klamath irrigators in 2020, providing more flexibility in how $10 million in relief funds that were part of the 2018 Water Resources Development Act can be used.
“This legislation will ensure they have the tools they need to get through these hard times as well as prepare irrigators in the Klamath Basin if they are hit with severe drought in the years ahead,” the congressman said when President Donald Trump signed his bill in October.
Walden’s 2nd Congressional District – by far the state’s largest by geography and the seventh most expansive in the nation – became the focus of national attention again in early 2016, when armed extremists seized and occupied the Malheur refuge headquarters for 41 days.
The group was led by Ammon Bundy, who participated in a 2014 standoff with federal authorities over grazing rights in Nevada. All the militants in the Oregon protest surrendered after one of them, Robert LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed by FBI agents while reaching for a handgun and another, Ryan Bundy, was wounded trying to run a roadblock, Portland’s Oregonian reported at the time.
The extremists were protesting the treatment of father-and-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Dwight Hammond, who were convicted in 2012 of arson for lighting public land on fire adjacent to their ranch land south of Burns, according to the newspaper. The two were set to return to prison after losing an appeal and didn’t want the Bundy clan’s help.
During the occupation, Walden complained about what he saw as poor federal forest and land management policies. “We need to foster a more cooperative spirit between the federal agencies and the people who call areas like Haney County home,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
At Walden’s urging, Trump pardoned the Hammonds and commuted their sentences in 2018.
“I worked hard to protect (producers’) way of life, defending farmers and ranchers from bad policy proposals,” Walden said in his farewell speech. “I defended their water rights. I protected their land, starting with saving Steens Mountain. Moreover, I supported ag research and water conservation efforts throughout the district. And while we made much progress on both fronts, my one regret is that we could never find the key to unlocking a durable and fair solution to the water crisis in the Klamath Basin that could pass in Congress.
'We did make progress'
“We did make progress to improve forest management, even though I’m disappointed Congress has dragged its feet in enacting much more reform to make our federal forests healthier and more resilient to climate change,” he said.
He noted it’s been 17 years since Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which authorized hazardous fuels reduction and other measures on federal lands.
“Hopefully, in the next Congress you all will … modernize how we manage this great American resource before it all goes up in smoke,” Walden said.