AP NEWS

Editorials from around Oregon

August 22, 2018

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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Corvallis Gazette-Times, Aug. 21, on memories of eclipse enduring a year later:

What a difference a year makes: This week, we’re looking at the gray, dark skies around the mid-valley and cursing the smoke created by the region’s wildfires.

But a year ago this week, we gazed into darkening skies and cheered as a total solar eclipse — for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience — worked its way from west to east across Oregon as it started a remarkable journey across the United States.

Or maybe you were lucky enough to see if from atop Marys Peak. Maybe you joined the throngs on the campus of Oregon State University to view it. Maybe you joined friends and neighbors in parks in Lebanon or points west. Maybe you were one of the folks who hopped onto a plane at the Albany airport to get an airborne view.

Maybe you just watched it from your backyard or stepped outside your office, slapped on your pair of eclipse glasses (the one essential fashion accessory from the summer of 2017) and witnessed what turned out to be an astonishing cosmic spectacle: The moon passing across the surface of the sun, plunging the world below into two minutes or so of darkness.

But wherever you managed to watch the eclipse, you weren’t alone: You were among the millions of Americans who were watching the skies that day. A story this week in The Oregonian cited a survey from the University of Michigan concluding that 88 percent of Americans (it works out to about 216 million) watched the eclipse either in person or electronically.

Despite fears that hundreds of thousands of people would descend on the mid-valley (deemed among the best spots in the nation to view the eclipse), the crowds here were well-behaved. The massive traffic jams that people worried about by and large did not materialize, although traffic was backed up in some locations in the hours after the eclipse.

And, although it seems to odd to say this about a celestial event, the event itself delivered the goods: In fact, it’s hard to think of any other event in recent history that generated so much hype beforehand and then managed to live up to the hype.

It helps, of course, to be lucky: Although wildfires were burning in the West last Aug. 21, the skies that morning in the mid-valley were crystal-clear. There was cloud cover on the Oregon coast, where the eclipse first made landfall, but those clouds did not make it to the mid-valley.

In fact, no matter your location at about 10:15 a.m. on that Monday, during the two minutes of totality, our hunch is that you could hear the gasps and cheers from others. Maybe you joined with the cheers, or maybe you were stunned into silence. You and millions of others might have experienced goosebumps, and it wasn’t because the air suddenly seemed (and was) cooler.

Our overuse of the word “awesome” has devalued the word’s meaning; it is not “awesome” when the person taking your lunch order gets it right. On that Monday morning, a spectacle so much bigger than any of us gave us a refresher course in the true meaning of “awesome.” And that’s why those of us lucky enough to see it will carry it with us.

Well, that and our eclipse glasses, which we chose not to recycle.

The next total solar eclipse in the continental United States is scheduled for April 8, 2024; it’ll start down in Texas and work its way up to Maine. We’re not planning to make the trip to see the event, but we know people who already are making plans to do so. A little more than a year ago, we might have scoffed at such an ambition. Today, though, as we recall the memories of Aug. 21, 2017 — the way the eclipse looked, sounded, felt — we completely understand the impulse.

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The Medford Mail Tribune, Aug. 19, on smoke issue from wildfires:

It’s become monotonous. With only a few brief interludes of favorable winds to clear the smoke, Southern Oregonians go about their daily business in sealed cars and closed-up houses and workplaces, strapping breathing masks to their faces if they must be outside for any length of time.

It’s a normal reaction to these conditions to look for a fix. Surely something can be done to limit wildfires and the smoke they produce.

Something can and should be done, but it won’t be quick and it won’t be cheap.

First, it’s important to understand how we got to this point.

Longtime residents remember summers without weeks of choking smoke, a thriving timber industry and reservoirs brimming with water from plentiful winter snowpacks. None of that is coming back, with the possible exception of less-smoky skies — eventually.

While the timber industry was booming, clearcuts were replanted with new trees, which grew into plantations that now help to fuel the fires that plague our region. Decades of active fire suppression prevented the natural, low-intensity fires that burn along the ground, clearing the forest floor while leaving big trees to continue growing. Underbrush — what foresters call “ladder fuels” — now chokes the forests, turning what could have been beneficial fires into the “crown fires” that destroy hundreds of thousands of acres.

At the same time, the climate was gradually changing, with higher temperatures, less rain and snowfall and longer fire seasons. Eight of the 10 hottest summers in Medford have occurred since the Biscuit fire of 2002.

So what’s to be done?

The most promising plan was developed by a coalition of federal agencies, conservationists, business and community leaders, landowners and foresters. The Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative produced a detailed plan a year ago, called the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy. It calls for mechanical thinning of overgrown forests, coupled with prescribed burning in the fall and spring when weather conditions will keep smoke out of communities as much as possible.

The plan proposes thinning and fuels reduction on 25 percent of the Rogue Basin, or 1.1 million acres, over a period of 20 to 30 years. The group estimates that could reduce wildfire risk as much as 70 percent, while putting 1,700 people to work, directly and indirectly.

Some of those would be logging jobs, but by no means all of them. Much of the landscape that needs to be treated contains little or no commercially valuable timber.

Those areas that do contain merchantable timber could produce enough to approach the annual targets of both the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management, all without clearcutting or encroaching on riparian zones. The proceeds could help defray some, but not all, of the cost of thinning and fuels reduction.

The group estimates the work would require up to $30 million in federal appropriations every year for 20 years. That’s a lot of money, but this summer’s firefighting costs exceeded $135 million two weeks ago, with no end in sight. And that doesn’t include the secondary costs in lost tourism revenue and destroyed property.

Thinning costs average $500 to $600 an acre, with prescribed burning adding more cost. But fighting the Garner fire this month cost $4,900 an acre.

Congress needs to realize that it’s less expensive in the long run to reduce fire risk by restoring forests than to fight the catastrophic fires that result from overgrown, unhealthy landscapes.

That won’t mean an immediate end to the smoke we’re now experiencing. And there always will be some smoke from prescribed burns in spring and fall, and from the so-called “good fires” that remove underbrush and keep the risk of catastrophic fire low. But doing nothing will only guarantee more years of unbreathable air and hundreds of millions in firefighting costs, not to mention lost lives, property and timber.

Let’s get started.

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The Eugene Register-Guard, Aug. 19, on PERS debate being an essential ingredient in race for governor:

In this fall’s gubernatorial campaign, the candidates, and Oregonians, have an ideal chance to debate in detail the hugely expensive Public Employees Retirement System that is one of the root causes of Oregon’s protracted crisis over taxes and public services.

PERS is difficult to talk about for many reasons:

It is complex and the sums of money are so large — and pose such a staggering burden to taxpayers — that they boggle the mind.

Many PERS beneficiaries are defensive. Many critics are vitriolic.

Plus, legal decisions shield current retirees in PERS from virtually all clawbacks or cuts, so any cost-paring must come at the expense of current and future government employees.

One thing is clear, however: without PERS reform, public services in the state will continue to spiral downwards, in the classrooms, on the streets, in the parks, as tax dollars continue to be channeled into PERS when they could be better spent hiring more teachers and police.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler has already issued an ambitious PERS reform plan. Incumbent Gov. Kate Brown has, predictably, pooh-poohed it. Her own PERS plans amount to minor tweaks.

Buehler’s plan, on examination, might prove unfair to current government employees, or might not even save much money. Brown’s campaign has said overall government-employee compensation — pay, retirement and health benefits — is reasonable and should not be cut. But at this point, that’s not the issue. The important element now is to have a full public airing.

Oregon’s Democratic leadership over the years has been maddeningly slippery about curbing the costs of the retirement system. That’s no surprise given how heavily funded Democrats are by campaign dollars from public employee unions.

Democrats have offered some modest reforms, some of which were overturned by the courts. And with a strong hold on the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, they’ve declared there’s little else of substance to be done about PERS.

Buehler challenges that assertion. It may take an outsider — that is to say a Republican — to get the message across to Oregon’s Democratic establishment that public disillusion over PERS, taxes and public services is heading toward a tipping point.

Oregon state agencies, school districts and local governments — in other words, all taxpayers — are pumping an estimated $2.9 billion into PERS in the current biennium, which ends next June 30. In the subsequent biennium, PERS will demand much more: a total of $4 billion. That’s $707 per Oregon resident in the current biennium, and $976 per resident in the next.

These payments into PERS only chip away at the unfunded liability of the system, which stands at $22 billion. That’s the shortfall between the value of PERS investments, and the value of benefits PERS members have earned up until now.

The city of Eugene has a $260 million unfunded PERS liability. The Eugene School District, $228 million. The Eugene Water & Electric Board, $129 million; Lane County, $226 million. For a Eugene family of four, the burden from those four governments alone computes to more than $14,000.

In Springfield, the school district has an unfunded liability of $113 million, the city, $48 million. Those, plus Springfield residents’ share of the Lane County liability, come to more than $13,000 per household of four.

The crux of Buehler’s plan is to move all current state employees, and as many local government and school district employees as legally possible, into a new 401k-type system, as soon as feasible. Current government employees’ PERS pension accruals for time served would be honored. But for employment going forward, government workers would probably have only a 401k plan, with the state providing a perhaps 6 percent match, Buehler said in an interview with The Register-Guard’s editorial board. The exact scope and details of the transition from PERS pension to 401k remain fuzzy.

Buehler also would cap at $100,000 the salary amount used to calculate PERS retirement benefits. That would close the door on new retirees getting six-figure annual PERS pensions, as an elite does now. He would also eliminate the use of accumulated vacation and sick leave to push up final salaries, which PERS uses to calculate pensions.

Buehler said these steps could free $1.2 billion per biennium for state government. He’d use it to hire more teachers. How much it might save local governments and school districts is uncertain. It’s unclear whether all local government and school district labor contracts require employees to accept whatever PERS system the Legislature imposes, or whether local governments and school districts might have to compensate employees for loss of PERS benefits for work going forward.

Buehler said he would refuse to sign any new spending bills until the Legislature approved “fair and legally permissible pension reforms.”

Buehler’s plan amounts to “gutting state employee compensation,” Brown’s campaign said. Imposing the salary cap in calculating PERS pensions would hurt firefighters and police who retire, the campaign said. That step, plus the elimination of vacation and sick leave in PERS calculations, would produce less than $730 million in savings per biennium, not the $1.2 billion Buehler touts, Brown’s campaign said. However, Brown’s campaign doesn’t evaluate the cost savings from shifting all employees going forward into a 401k-style plan. Furthermore, $730 million isn’t peanuts.

The departing chairman of the PERS board, Eugene financial consultant John Thomas, pointed out in a recent interview that new government employees covered by PERS under the existing program will, after 30 years of service, get an annual pension payment from the system that is equal to about 60 percent of their final salary. On top of that they get Social Security, Thomas noted.

Is preserving of that level of PERS benefit more important than putting more teachers in classrooms and cops on the beat? This fall’s campaign should help voters answer that question.

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The Bend Bulletin, Aug. 18, on Forest Service needing to renew Bend’s water permit:

The Forest Service permit that allows Bend to take water from source springs for Tumalo Creek is up for renewal. It should be renewed.

Bend gets about half of its drinking water from an intake on Bridge Creek. It’s a tributary of Tumalo Creek. This permit is really about what happens before that intake.

Upstream of the Bridge Creek intake are source springs for Tumalo Creek. In the mid-1950s a diversion was constructed at those springs that brings some water down through a canal into Bridge Creek. The permit covers that diversion.

The important thing to know about the city’s permit renewal is it is not seeking to do anything new. The city is not building any new pipes or taking more water. It just wants to keep doing what it has been doing to help provide drinking water for the city. Issuing the permit won’t change flows in Tumalo Creek or the water going over Tumalo Falls. And for all those reasons, the Forest Service should issue a renewal of the permit — as it plans to — without any requirements for an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment.

The city did consider modifying the diversion at the source springs. It considered putting in an automated head gate to better enable it to alter the flow. It considered piping. But any sort of modification would involve construction in the middle of the forest and building a road in an area with no roads. The city smartly decided to leave it “as is.”

Central Oregon LandWatch, the environmental group, has called on the Forest Service to require the city to do an environmental assessment before renewing the permit. If the city were planning new construction in the forest or changing the diversion, maybe that would be justified. But when the city isn’t changing a thing, it isn’t worth the time, expense and any ensuing legal challenges.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Aug. 17, on safety of Portland’s e-scooters:

Along with the controversial rallies, a lengthy occupation and an eternal August heat wave, 2018 will be remembered as Portland’s summer of the scooter.

For some Portlanders, the peppy and affordable transportation alternatives have been a blast. For others, they’re as pesky as yellowjackets at a picnic. In dozens of letters to the editor and online comments over the past week, Portlanders have complained that scooter jockeys are going without helmets, hitting pedestrians, cruising at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour into traffic or dumping them haphazardly when they’re done.

Indeed, there’ve been a few minor e-scooter accidents in the three weeks since the city launched a pilot program with three different brands. And while some Portlanders claim on social media that there’ve been many more near-misses, the biggest problem with the potential scooter sensation is a lack of knowledge of — or attention to — the rules.

Yes, there are rules. And for this experiment to take hold, the city and the companies’ communication and enforcement must improve.

For a change, however, we haven’t arrived here for a lack of trying. Commissioner Dan Saltzman and the Portland Bureau of Transportation should be lauded for their work earlier this year to get ahead of this craze. It’s clear they learned from the fiasco that was Uber’s unauthorized entry into the Portland market — a strategy that some scooter companies have also tried elsewhere.

Portland transportation officials researched the trend, sought advice from a citizen group and invited various e-scooter entrepreneurs to join a four-month trial program that ends in late November. Participants had to agree to a variety of stipulations, including distributing scooters across both sides of the river equitably, using a specific app and — brilliantly — sharing ridership data that’s been withheld from other municipalities.

Come to Portland without playing by our rules, the invite warned, and the city will confiscate scooters.

As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Andrew Theen has reported, Portland’s regulations are some of the stiffest nationwide. To cover administrative, marketing and enforcement costs, the city charges companies a 25-cent-per-ride surcharge, and applicants paid $5,250 to play.

That’s not chump change considering the total of 2,049 e-scooters operating in the city today will eventually rise to a maximum of 2,500. As of Aug. 15, the city logged more than 96,000 rides, or around $24,000. Dylan Rivera, the bureau’s spokesman, said revenue that goes beyond costs will be spent to ramp up marketing and enforcement efforts.

Good, because the biggest challenge to scooter success is ensuring both Portlanders who are on and off the two-wheelers are safe.

The city has received 700 complaints - from 300 individuals - as well as another 150 reported by the companies. Most center on scooters on sidewalks or riders without helmets. State and city rules require helmets, which some of the companies have agreed to provide to riders at no cost. City rules also ban the e-scooters from city sidewalks and parks, including the Eastbank Esplanade, Waterfront Park and the Springwater Corridor. And kids 16 and under aren’t allowed on scooters.

Rivera said Portland police, parking enforcement officers and park rangers are tasked with scooter supervision. For now, most folks are getting warnings, he said. But from the looks of it, that should ramp up sooner rather than later along with a citywide campaign to get the word out. Tickets, even if small, could serve as a reminder that what was once considered a toy is now a regulated vehicle — and must be treated like one.

City leaders cleverly avoided the adversarial relationships other cities currently have with scooter companies. But it may be more difficult for them to foster a good relationship between scooter fans and other Portlanders. An Oregonian/OregonLive reader poll — albeit unscientific — shows the steep hill they may face. Thoughts on scooters? “KeepOnScootinPDX” scored 39 percent of the vote Friday afternoon, while “StopScootinPDX” received a hearty 61 percent.

It would be a shame for Portland to miss out on a chance for a fun, convenient and low-cost option for a full commute or just a little help making that last stretch between home or work and public transit. This city values creativity, environmentally friendly options and car alternatives.

Scooters could fit the bill as long the city takes the time now, when ridership is high, to smooth out what has become a bumpy road. Without that work, this viable option may very well get kicked to the curb.

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