CROOKED RIVER RANCH, Ore. — About a quarter-mile down a flat, dusty trail thick with juniper trees and sprinkled with rattlesnake skins, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) looks out over the rim of a 500-foot gorge and peppers local and regional leaders with questions about wildfire threats and wilderness study areas.
As the sun peeks through the haze of smoke from fires burning around the Pacific Northwest, the new House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman is here during Congress’ August recess worried about what will happen if a wildfire hits this sprawling 12,000-acre ranch resort bisected by the Deschutes and Crooked rivers. It’s the largest subdivision in Walden’s enormous central and eastern Oregon district.
Walden’s most recent visit is not his first. For years he’s met with officials and environmentalists to find a way to thin out the thick brush on the gorge’s rim without harming the protected land, labeled a wilderness study area.
His efforts, however, have run up against strict federal restrictions on those lands, which prevent people from using mechanical equipment to reduce vegetation.
Walden is pushing the House to pass a bill, H.R. 2075, that would remove more than 800 acres from the wilderness study area. He concedes that a similar push failed in the last Congress, but he’s now at the helm of one of Congress’ most powerful committees.
"We should be good to go," Walden, clad in khakis, comfortable walking shoes and green Oregon Ducks hat, tells a few dozen officials, homeowners and environmental activists.
Frustrated environmentalists say the bill would set a dangerous precedent by removing protections for a specific area without adding any elsewhere. But constituents applauded the legislation as an overdue and commonsense way to fight the ever-present threat of fire.
Supporters say Walden’s approach reflects the mix of mainstream conservatism and deal-making that has defined his nearly 20 years in the House. "I like to see myself in the pragmatic middle," Walden told E&E News.
Walden’s approach reflects the independent, self-reliant spirit of his pioneer ancestors who helped settle the rugged region, where voters favor limited government even as they have greatly benefited from federal dams and timber price supports.
The chairman’s attitude is also a byproduct of his own desire for civility in politics that comes up with growing up an Eagle Scout and the son of local civic leaders who owned a string of radio stations along the Columbia River Gorge.
Walden’s committee is charged with overseeing major environmental laws and the agencies carrying them out, including U.S. EPA and the Energy Department.
A review of his priorities during his first nine months with the gavel, his record over 18 years in the House and his steady rise through the GOP ranks offers a road map of the policies he’s likely to pursue.
A ‘difficult initiation,’ moving bills
Walden’s chairmanship could not have gotten off to a more high-profile, or challenging, start with the committee taking the lead in drafting the legislation scrapping the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare.
The chairman held a marathon 27-hour markup this spring and was then one of the lead negotiators in talks with the White House over a final version.
"He’s had by far the most difficult initiation of his chairmanship," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a former E&C Committee chairman who could not recall a leader of the panel in modern history successfully moving such major legislation in his first months on the job.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, who has often been at ideological odds with the House’s moderate Tuesday Group, where Walden has long been active, also gave him high marks for bringing the groups together in health care talks, even as the measure has stalled in the Senate.
"He’s got that wonderful radio voice, he smiles, and that kind of makes you want to agree with him even if you have differences," said Meadows.
While Walden’s first months were dominated by health care, the committee has also moved significant energy and environmental bills, among them long-overdue reauthorizations of EPA’s brownfields program and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
He also won committee backing for a bill on addressing the contentious issue of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the first-ever bill to pass the House regulating autonomous vehicles. All those bills moved through Energy and Commerce with near-unanimous support.
Democrats weren’t entirely thrilled, saying the brownfields and autonomous vehicle bills should have come with more funding. And they said the nuclear measure was more about advancing the issue to the Senate now that longtime foe Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is retired.
Former Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said of Walden, "He’s very practical, gets a lot of member input, [and] he has a good relationship" with ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). Upton is also considered a moderate.
Asked about his fall committee agenda, Walden emphasized at least some interest in bipartisan work rather than focusing on only conservative bills.
He’s aiming for major legislation to reauthorize the Department of Energy for the first time since it was founded, but the contentious topic of DOE taking over some of EPA’s regulatory work, a priority for some conservatives, won’t be part of it.
Walden also wants a biofuels reform bill written broadly enough to pass the Senate, where there is far more support for biofuels, like ethanol (E&E Daily, Sept. 5).
Not a ‘preservationist’
While Walden has shown some pragmatism, he has also drawn a hard line in advancing conservative bills. Those have included measures to delay EPA ozone standards until 2025 and removing the presidential permit requirement for cross-border pipelines and electricity transmission projects.
Pallone blasted the legislation as little more than a partisan attempt to allow quick approval for projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. The Democrat said it would "tie regulators’ hands" in conducting reviews.
And despite talk of compromises and moderation, most public land advocates believe Walden will fall in line with conservative views on energy and the environment as he has most of his career.
They note Walden has opposed cap-and-trade legislation to combat global warming; raised questions about the science used for making designations under the Endangered Species Act; supported expanded offshore drilling; and backed Trump administration efforts to roll back the Obama administration’s signature environmental initiative, the Clean Power Plan.
"He’s consistently voted against the climate, protecting lands, and clean water and clean air," said Nikki Roemmer, regional director for the League of Conservation Voters in central Oregon, who notes Walden has a 9 percent lifetime rating on the group’s legislative scorecard.
Walden knows his view won’t win him accolades from greens.
"I don’t consider myself a preservationist, which is lock it up, leave it alone and never touch it again," said Walden, stressing a preference for conservation. "In my own definition of an environmentalist, I would describe myself as that, I know the left won’t ever do that. But I have a great love of the lakes and our trails."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a liberal from Portland, conceded he rarely agrees with Walden on environmental issues but pointed to their work together on a 2009 bill to make 77,000 acres around Mount Hood into a wilderness area and off-limits to timber companies.
Before the bill became law, Blumenauer and Walden spent several days hiking and camping around the iconic mountain to meet with local and tribal leaders.
"I feel that he is somebody I can talk to," said Blumenauer, noting he has known Walden since he served with his father in the Oregon Legislature in the 1970s. "There are just a lot of people in Congress these days who are more hard-edged."
Protecting timber, promoting hydro
The Cascade Mountains form a barrier between the coastal region of Oregon, where much of the state’s population lies in cities like Portland and Eugene.
Walden’s 2nd District covers the other two-thirds of the state. It’s one of the largest districts in the country, with the bulk of the state’s land but half of its population.
Oregon has long been one of the nation’s top producers of timber, with much of the harvesting based in the area Walden represents, which has more national forests, 10, than any other district in the country.
Much of the chairman’s environment and energy work has focused on finding ways to preserve a timber industry, decimated by international competition and increased environmental regulation since the 1980s.
His signature effort is the Healthy Forests Initiative, a law he first helped pass in 2003 with the backing of President George W. Bush, which expanded logging in federal forests with an aim of better managing the lands and thinning them out to reduce fires.
Business and timber interests supported the legislation as a sensible way to combat fires and help an ailing industry, while environmentalists opposed it as an end run around regulations aimed at maintaining forests.
"Land management issues are always controversial, always controversial," said Walden, who was a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee during negotiations on the bill.
Walden recalled holding sensitive talks to convince a handful of Northeast GOP House moderates opposed to Healthy Forests to delay their "no" votes to prevent a flurry of other Republican defections.
Walden has had more limited success on other timber legislation in recent years. An updated version of the Healthy Forests bill to expand timber harvesting by turning logging lands over to state trusts in exchange for federal aid to rural communities has passed the House several times but has stalled in the Senate.
"I think in my role as Energy and Commerce chair I’ll have leverage when some of these [timber] packages come together," said Walden, who also favors promoting biomass as a renewable energy.
Ralph Saperstein, an Oregon-based lobbyist who works closely with timber interests, praised Walden for not only pressing legislation but also learning logging issues and pushing for action with other leaders.
Saperstein noted that Walden reiterated his case for thinning forests to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) this August, when the leader visited Oregon as part of a national push for tax reform.
"A lot of times it’s not the legislation but getting agencies to get the rules implemented," said Saperstein, noting Walden has been effective on that front too.
Aside from alpine forests, the other defining feature of Walden’s district is the Columbia River Gorge, which runs along the northern border that separates Oregon from Washington.
Once a wild river filled with raging rapids traversed by explorers Lewis and Clark, over the past century the Columbia has been outfitted with a series of federal dams.
They have made the waterway a main line of transport from the interior west to the Pacific Ocean, provided irrigation for the state’s farmlands, and produced cheap hydropower for the Northwest and into California.
Walden wants to move legislation expanding hydro as a renewable energy source. The congressman said he’s frustrated that hydropower from larger dams like those on the Columbia are seen by some states, like California, and environmentalists as a less valuable renewable source than solar and other sources because of its impacts on waterways, fish and other wildlife.
"There is no carbon emission with hydro, so if your goal is emissions why wouldn’t we value a no-emission energy?" said Walden. "I would argue it’s even less carbon emitting because you don’t have to manufacture anything once you have the dam in place."
A steady rise
Walden, 60, has spent nearly his entire adult life in politics.
After graduating from the University of Oregon, he spent five years in the mid-1980s serving as a press aide in Washington, D.C., to then-Rep. Bob Smith (R-Ore.) before returning home to help run his family’s radio stations and host his own talk show.
By 1988, Walden had won a seat in the state Legislature, where he was seen as a moderate who could broker bipartisan deals, including one preserving funding for Portland’s light-rail system.
Walden planned to run for governor in 1993 but dropped out after his unborn second child was found to have a major heart problem. The son would die a little more than a day after being born.
A political scandal helped him land his seat in Congress in 1998. The successor to Walden’s onetime Capitol Hill boss Smith, Rep. Wes Cooley (R-Ore.), was caught lying about his military record during his first term.
Smith would come out of retirement in 1996 to oust Cooley but then quickly announced he would retire again and anointed Walden his successor.
Like his route to the House, Walden’s path to the E&C chairmanship benefited from his forging a strong relationship with a well-connected mentor.
In late 2009, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wanted to reward then-Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama for switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP with a seat on Energy and Commerce. But to do so, Boehner had to convince another Republican member to give up their committee slot for the rest of the Congress. Five more senior lawmakers turned Boehner down before Walden agreed to the move.
When the GOP took over the House in 2010, Boehner returned the favor and named Walden chairman of House Republican leadership, where he helped manage the party’s transition into power.
The high-profile post led to him being elected two years later the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm. Walden also moved back to E&C, where he would lead the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.
Already popular among the GOP for his sharp, self-deprecating wit honed working as a radio DJ, Walden became the front-runner for the E&C gavel by maintaining House majorities in 2014 and 2016 at the NRCC.
When Upton — who is such a close enough friend of Walden’s that their two families vacation together — opted not to try to extend his tenure, GOP leaders picked Walden over Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a senior committee conservative.
"Greg is not as concerned as being super-well-liked like Fred was," said Shimkus, when asked about the differences between the chairman and predecessor.
Shimkus said Walden learned at the NRCC that you sometimes have to choose sides among Republicans and praised him for so far not trying to "micromanage" subcommittees.
‘As long as he wants it’
Ever since the health care vote, Democratic activists in Walden’s district have held rallies to protest the vote and drum up support for a strong challenger in 2018.
They note the rest of the state’s five-member House delegation, two senators and governor are Democrats, and Hillary Clinton easily won the state in last fall’s presidential election.
But Walden seems a safe bet to serve the better part of the next five-plus years as chairman before House term limits for chairmen kick in, several Oregon political observers say.
Jason Burge, chairman of the Democratic Party in Deschutes County, the most populous in Walden’s district, said the veteran lawmaker will be "tough" to defeat. He noted Walden won his re-election in 2018 by 40 percentage points and has not faced a competitive race since his first election.
While the state has become solidly Democratic, Walden’s district remains reliably red, made up largely of rural voters who have a long record of sending Republicans to Congress, Burge said. Donald Trump beat Clinton by about 20 points in the district in last year’s general election.
Jim Moore, a political analyst with Pacific University, said Walden’s brand of Republicanism fits well in a district where conservative tea party GOP activists do not have a strong presence. He said the congressman’s work on forest issues, particularly backing some aid to distressed local timber communities, has played well.
"It’s entirely conceivable he could be there another 20 years," said Moore. "He has it as long as he wants it."