Charles Kocher, Pilot staff writer

After a five-month political battle based in part on federal timber policies, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., was elected Thursday the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

DeFazio, whose district includes Curry County, has served as a member of the committee for 26 years and is next in line in committee seniority behind Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. During his tenure, DeFazio has served on every subcommittee, chaired a special task force on energy, and been involved in legislative battles impacting districts nationwide.

"This gives me a seat at the table with the Democratic leadership on any issue of natural resources," DeFazio told the Pilot in a phone interview on Friday. "Today's a good day; everybody is congratulating me."

In part because of work in his own district on OandC timberlands issue, DeFazio said he was opposed for the position by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona. The challenger was backed by groups such as the Lane County Audobon Society and DeFazio's predecessor and former boss Jim Weaver.

"When Jim Weaver chaired the Natural Resources Committee, they were harvesting (record levels of) 1.2 billion board feet of timber from federal lands," DeFazio said. "Now his position is to never cut another tree from federal land."

DeFazio scolded environmental groups for that "adamant position," suggesting instead, "Maybe we should find a compromise."

One of the perks of the new position will be additional staff resources, which DeFazio said he would use in part to work on the OandC lands issue. He has only had half time of one staff member to devote to the issue before now.

Both DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are proposing a solution to the deadlock over harvests from OandC lands that would permanently preserve key timber stands and sensitive lands, while returning harvest to other areas. The review, he said, is acre-by-acre as the proposal is developed.

"Wyden can probably move it in the Senate; I'm trying to do it from over here," DeFazio said of the OandC proposal. "It's only an Oregon issue," he said, "but it is what led this challenge (from Rep. Grijalva)."

DeFazio said he has been campaigning within the House Democratic Caucus for five months to get the ranking member spot. He said Grijalva was pushing for a ballot among the entire caucus, but withdrew his campaign this week. The Democratic leadership, of which DeFazio is a member, voted 33-16 to promote DeFazio.

"Oregon took a big loss when we lost all that seniority and clout that we used to have with (Senators) Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood," DeFazio said. "There are certain benefits to seniority, even if you have to fight for it."

"As Ranking Member, I will push for a 21st-century energy policy that promotes conservation and the development of renewable resources on federal lands and waters," DeFazio wrote in a press release. "I will fight to get this committee and Congress moving forward on climate change action. And, I will work with my colleagues to develop sustainable forestry practices that improve forest health, protect irreplaceable old growth, and prevent catastrophic fires andhellip; to create needed jobs in rural resource dependent communities."

He said he also intends to urge the committee to update overdue portions of the Mining Reform Act of 1872, including obtaining fair royalties for mineral extraction on federal lands. DeFazio also hopes to protect Bristol Bay's salmon fisheries from "risky oil drilling and destructive mining," he said.

The Natural Resource Committee has jurisdiction over federal lands, oceans and fisheries, and is responsible for safeguarding critical protections that keep air and water clean, and national treasures safe for future generations.

In coming months, this committee will address issues in every state and U.S. territory.

"I look forward to representing the conservation values of the Democratic Caucus in the House and partnering with the senior senator from Oregon (Wyden) who shares jurisdiction over many of the same issues," DeFazio said. "And I will work hard to find common ground with my neighbor to the north, Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), on these complex, controversial and critically important issues."

DeFazio was a co-founder of the House Progressive Caucus and is the current co-chair of the Populist Caucus. In addition to the House Natural Resources Committee, he is a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.