Doc Hastings ready for new, bigger House role

YAKIMA -- Congressman Doc Hastings, a soft-spoken conservative who toes the Republican party line on most issues, generally doesn't garner much public attention outside his sweeping U.S. House district in Central Washington. That's likely to change with GOP control of the chamber come January.

Hastings is set to take over the Natural Resources Committee, a panel that has jurisdiction over most federal land and water policy, covering national parks, wilderness areas and American Indian reservations.

Issues in those areas resonate across large swaths of the American West, not just in Hastings' Fourth District, which stretches from north-central Washington to the Oregon border.

In a telephone interview this week, Hastings noted that he has yet to be named chairman but said he's pleased his colleagues named him ranking member beginning in 2009. Hastings, 69, of Pasco, first won his seat in 1994 and has won re-election, often handily, in each election since.

"I view this as a real opportunity," he said. "This committee has broad jurisdiction over so much within the Northwest."

The last time Republicans controlled the House, Hastings headed the ethics committee.

Hastings said that extending the Bush tax cuts and passing a stopgap spending plan would be his focus for the lame duck session that begins next week. In the long term, he said reducing the deficit and spending will be his biggest priorities, along with improving the economy -- an area where he sees a role for the committee.

Hastings is a strong advocate of expanding American energy resources, including through offshore drilling.

"We need to look at all the opportunities to expand the economy and create jobs. I'm in favor of an all-of-the-above energy plan," he said, noting the region's hydropower and growing wind and solar resources. "But we also need to utilize energy in gas and coal. A lot of those opportunities come on federal land."

Hastings said he would consider wilderness designations and recognition of Native American tribes on a case-by-case basis. The Chinook tribe in Southwest Washington is seeking such recognition.

In 2000, Hastings opposed the Clinton administration's creation of a federally managed national monument on the Hanford Reach, 51 miles of prime salmon-spawning habitat on the Columbia River.

But as the committee's ranking member, Hastings moved forward a bill, sponsored by fellow Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, said Tom Uniack, conservation director for the Washington Wilderness Coalition. The bill passed the House but awaits action in the Senate.

"Washington state has a rich bipartisan history in wilderness issues," Uniack said. "I look forward to working with him, not just on that legislation, but on others."

Hastings routinely has advocated for new water storage in his arid region, where drought raises concerns about streamflows for threatened and endangered fish, and about an adequate water supply for towns and farmers, who rely on irrigation to grow an abundance of crops.

In the Yakima River basin, a local group of stakeholders is hammering out details of a proposal for addressing those concerns, and Hastings said he is keeping a close eye on the negotiations.

The state and federal governments also are studying options for improving water supplies in the Yakima and Columbia River basins, where irrigators have been pumping water from an aquifer that is steadily declining.

Addressing the situation in both regions will cost money, but Hastings declined to say that the two areas could end up competing for a short supply of federal dollars given the budget deficit.

"There is no competition between the Yakima River and the Columbia River," he said. "Those are entirely different river systems, and both of them should be looked at on the basis of those basins."

Michael Garrity, state conservation director for American Rivers, agreed the two basins should be considered by their needs.

"It's important that -- however it comes out -- he support habitat improvements as well as improvements for his agricultural constituents," he said.

Hastings has been on opposite sides of American Rivers on the long-running dams vs. fish debate and proposals to breach four dams in the lower Snake River. He calls the issue a "nonstarter."

Two bills sponsored by Hastings passed the House but languished in the Senate: One would authorize fish restocking in North Cascades lakes, while the other allows rebuilding a road in the remote community of Stehekin.

Outside his committee, Hastings has voiced support for a guestworker program for agriculture and has pushed the Obama administration to resolve Mexican tariffs on U.S. agricultural commodities, including Washington apples, cherries and pears. Mexico takes almost a third of all Washington apples exported.

Hastings also said he will continue to advocate for more money to clean up the highly contaminated Hanford nuclear reservation, which produced plutonium for the atomic weapons, saying the federal government has legal obligations to the state to clean it up. He heads the House's nuclear cleanup caucus.