Oregon’s state forests are supposed to be managed to deliver a balance of benefits, from sustainable timber harvests to habitat for fish and wildlife, from clean air and drinking water to well-managed recreation spaces.
But the Oregon Department of Forestry is failing on almost every front.
The reasons are numerous, but stem from structural issues exacerbated during the last decade by ineffective management at the agency, ineffectual oversight by its seven-member board and inaction by the governor and legislators.
The agency’s state forest division budget is almost entirely dependent on timber sales, a volatile revenue stream that it can’t control and is subject to market swings, political agendas and legal challenges. The division gets no money from taxpayers, but is asked to provide services that cost millions of dollars annually and generate little or no revenue. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the timber sales it does generate go directly to 15 counties and the taxing districts where the logging takes place.
Since the 2008 recession, agency managers have warned that budget formula no longer works, leaving them operating at the edge of a financial precipice.
In response, they’ve axed staff, frozen programs and cut more trees. They’ve reduced the amount of forests set aside for conservation. They’ve deferred investments necessary to ensure future forest health and productivity. And they’ve skimmed the cream off their available “inventory,” targeting accessible clearcuts of large, high-value trees to quickly generate more profitable sales.
Those aren’t sustainable tactics, much less the durable long-term strategy to increase both financial and conservation outcomes that the division has been directed to develop since 2013, but has so far failed to deliver.
It’s unclear that such a balance can be achieved. Tradeoffs are inevitable. That’s why the current strategy – laid out in a document called the forest management plan — has become a zero-sum game, pitting rural counties, their schools and jobs against conservation, recreation and clean water.
The policy mess will be showcased in a trial starting this week. Fourteen of Oregon’s 15 “forest trust land” counties are suing the agency, arguing they’ve been shortchanged $1.4 billion in logging revenues. Bankrolled by private timber companies, the counties claim the state breached its contract with them by failing to maximize harvests on state forests since 2001. Many observers expect the agency will lose.
Conservationists and environmental groups are deeply unhappy with the agency, too. They’re convinced the state is already cutting at unsustainable levels to backfill its budget and is serially manipulating what it’s promised to protect so it can keep up the pace. They contend the logging on state forests threaten endangered salmon runs, wildlife habitats and clean water. To stop that, they’re suing to block 68 proposed timber sales.
And pressures are building within agency leadership. At an Oct. 9 planning retreat for the Oregon Board of Forestry, members complained of being stonewalled by staff on requests for basic financial and scientific information. Members of the oversight board said State Forester Peter Daugherty had failed to fully inform them of critical financial problems. And they said relations among board members had become dysfunctional.
Cindy Williams, a fish biologist from Medford who has served on the board for seven years, said it had been a tension filled year that left her feeling she had to “bulldoze my way into the conversation” to raise concerns.
“Something fundamental in the board attitude has changed,” she said, “and we need to address it.”
Valuing state forests
The state forest division’s mandate is to manage its public land for the “greatest permanent value” to the state of Oregon. Yet the exact meaning of “value” — and to whom it should go — is a controversial question.
It’s also unclear how much Oregon’s state forests have to give.
Many Oregonians rely on state forests as a place to hunt, fish, hike and camp — activities that cost the division millions of dollars a year to manage, but generate little revenue to offset its growing costs.
Oregonians also cherish wildlife habitats within forests like the Clatsop.
But the Clatsop is also the money-basket of the state forests. To improve the agency’s bottom line, forestry officials have systematically reduced their commitment to conserve parts of it, from 50% of the land base in 2003, to 40% in 2009 and to 30% in 2011.
The need to squeeze money from forests is fueled in part by a promise made nearly 80 years ago with Oregon’s 15 so-called “trust land counties.” In exchange for taking over hundreds of thousands of burned-over, logged and unproductive acres of county-owned forestland, the state agreed to rehabilitate them, protect them from fire and share the proceeds of future logging. Those revenues are critical for cash-strapped rural counties and support everything from public safety to education. And the forest products industry, despite its rapid decline over the last four decades, still provides those counties with some of their best paying jobs.
Daugherty, Oregon’s state forester since 2016 and an agency employee since 2007, acknowledges the dilemma.
“There’s a finite amount of state forests, and they can only produce a given suite of goods and services,” he said. “There are certainly tradeoffs.”
Bob Van Dyk picks his way up a hillside in the Clatsop State Forest. He pushes through the undergrowth, grabbing ferns and shrubs for handholds as he clambers over downed trees.
Fifty yards in, he stops next to a towering Douglas Fir with a trunk nearly 10 feet around.
“We’re in one of the very rare patches in the north coast of forest that has some genuine old growth characteristics,” said Van Dyk, policy director at the Wild Salmon Center, pointing out the mix of tree species and sizes, the abundance of standing snags and downed wood.
The state forest division once designated the area as protected, allowing only thinning of some younger trees.
Now, it’s been opened up for clearcutting.
This particular tract was part of a 6,000-acre land swap the forestry board approved last year in its ongoing effort to keep the division from going broke.
With little explanation, agency officials removed 2,600 acres of older tracts with large trees from conservation status that protected them from intensive logging and dropped them into the agency’s cut bucket, making them available for sale and harvest. The agency then gave another 3,550 acres protected status. The strategy helped the division present the move as a net gain in acres being managed to promote prime wildlife habitat, protect salmon-bearing streams and provide clean, reliable drinking water.
But conservationists describe it as a shell game. They say most of those newly protected acres were smaller tracts of young trees with seemingly minimal conservation value or narrow strips of trees along streams that were already protected.
An extreme example sits a few miles away, near the town of Jewell. It’s a gravel parking area with an abandoned Barcalounger and piles of trash. It bears no resemblance to older forest structure. Nor does the nearby open field riddled with gopher holes.
But both are now part of the 30% of the forest the agency has set aside to create “complex forest.” In reality, the division is making no progress toward that goal. The percentage of state forests that are complex today is going down, and now stands at 10%.
The swap gave heartburn to agency biologists, who raised concerns internally that it would break up existing habitat. Environmental groups fumed that the swap wasn’t accompanied by any detailed rationale. Yet the board approved the move, and many of the sections of forest were put up for sale this year.
“They basically opened up some of the fattest, juiciest most accessible stands of trees they have to clearcutting,” Van Dyk said. “Our overarching concern is that this is unsustainable.”
An agency on the brink
Oregon’s state forest division is a public program, but it doesn’t get any public money. Instead, it’s almost completely reliant on revenues from cutting trees. And right off the top, the agency must transfer nearly two-thirds of those proceeds to the trust land counties.
The agency manages the state’s forests with what’s left, no matter its expense level.
It’s a financial straitjacket that the counties and timber companies, who have considerable influence over forestry issues in Salem, have no interest in loosening. They have successfully opposed recent agency requests for general fund money to cover the growing costs of its recreation program, for example, insisting the agency should simply cut more trees.
Without outside money, the division rides the same economic rollercoaster as the wood products industry. The collapse of the housing market in the 2008 recession, followed by falling timber prices, put the agency’s budget into freefall.
“I don’t think anyone knew how deep and how long the recession would last,” said Liz Dent, the state forest division chief.
For the division, it lasted six years. Declining harvest volumes were compounded by a deep slump in timber prices, and the division’s reserves dropped from nearly $40 million in 2008 to $4.9 million in mid 2015, presenting the very real prospect of insolvency.
Leaders hollowed out their offices, slashing staff by 30%. They reduced spending across the board and froze the recreation program altogether. They reduced spending so much in other areas — including research, monitoring and young forest management — staff warned they would no longer be able to meet their statutory mandates.
Meanwhile, agency leaders directed foresters to focus on sales that generated maximum revenues and to increase harvest levels to 245 million board feet a year, the highest sustainable level under its current policy.
The division’s annual operating plan for 2019 lays it out: “Currently revenues generated from timber sales are not covering all costs for state forests,” adding that sales that “don’t cover all costs, or don’t contribute revenue to the division should be avoided.”
Not every timber sale is the same. The age of the stand, the mix of species, its location and relative accessibility all affect the prices that timber companies are willing to bid.
Agency leaders insist they’re not cutting more trees to patch the budget. The annual volume of timber the division puts up for sale has averaged 227 million board feet a year in the west side forests covered by the forest management plan, said Liz Dent, chief of the state forest division.
Daugherty, the state forester, agrees. “Cutting more timber isn’t going to solve our problem,” he said. “I’ve been saying that since I became state forester.”
Yet harvest volumes have increased. In those same west side forests, they spiked to 252 million board feet in 2017, 295 million in 2018 and 285 million board feet in 2019. The average harvest volume over the last five- and 10-year periods is above the level that agency leaders say they’re selling.
Agency figures also show that since 2008, it has shifted its harvests to focus on clearcuts. More selective, partial cuts or thinning have declined dramatically.
“We’re high-grading the forests,” said Williams, the forestry board member, using industry lingo for cherry-picking the most marketable stands of trees.
The tactic appears to work.
Buoyed by a spike in both volume and timber prices, the agency generated a $15 million profit on its $47.2 million share of harvest revenues in the year ended June 30, 2018. Results were even better in fiscal 2019, with a $19.1 million profit on revenues of $51 million. The agency’s formerly depleted reserve account has now ballooned to nearly $50 million – an astounding turnaround.
Still, agency officials say that’s not a sustainable strategy. Timber prices won’t stay high. The supply of high-profit tree stands are limited. And they can’t delay forest management projects indefinitely without undermining the health of the forests – and in turn, future revenues.
Even with $50 million in reserves, leaders say they can’t afford to take on one of its key strategic priorities: restoring the Tillamook Forest. The forest is ground zero for Swiss Needle Cast, a fungal disease that stunts Douglas Firs, dramatically reducing harvest yields. Likewise, a quarter of the Tillamook is dominated by stands of alder that are losing value as they age and lose treetop branches.
The best way to deal with both problems is to cut the stands and replant. But the agency says it can’t afford that fix because the cost would exceed its share of the logging revenues.
Leaders can’t dip into the state forest division’s reserves to fund the restoration either. They’re using that account to weather the next industry downturn. Besides, more than half the money isn’t available. The agency has already borrowed $27 million of it to cover uncollected fire costs – expenses the state forest division is not responsible for covering.
Expenses outpacing revenues
The seven-member forestry board is charged with financial and policy oversight of the department. But the group, led by businessman Tom Imeson, lacks a comprehensive understanding of the state forest division’s budget problems.
Some openly speculate that the crisis is manufactured, or that it’s only being staved off by the cost cutting and cherry-picking high-value trees, which will eventually create an ecological crisis.
They say they don’t have enough information to tell. And they’ve been frustrated in their attempts to get it.
Their concerns were amplified last month when they read about another major financial issue in The Oregonian/Oregonlive. Daugherty, the state forester, had not fully informed them the agency was struggling to recoup more than $100 million it was owed from fighting wildfires – some of the bills had yet to be invoiced and dated back to 2015. The situation is so bad the agency is borrowing money from the Department of Administrative Services to meet payroll.
Hence the raid on the state forest division’s financial reserves to prop up agency operations.
Brenda McComb, a retired forestry professor from Oregon State University, told Daughterty at the retreat that she was frustrated they weren’t provided long-term financial projections. That came on top of long-standing and unanswered requests for accurate modeling of the agency’s timber inventory and sustainable harvest.
“I’m being told by staff that we’re going to fall off a financial cliff,” she asked. “Where is the cliff and how long is it going to take get there? What are the causes? Understanding the causes, what levers can we pull?”
Jim Kelly, a board member from Eastern Oregon, asked staff repeatedly over the past six months for an accounting of just one expenditure — pension costs – to determine if they were contributing to the division’s financial woes.
After he asked the question in three consecutive board meetings, and after The Oregonian/OregonLive repeated the request, staff finally provided a cut and paste explanation from the PERS website about how employer’s contribution rates were set. No specifics included.
“I never got anything useful,” Kelly said. “I don’t know the answer.”
Working toward a solution
Pension expenses are a problem – a big one.
Based on its most recent budget request for 2019-21, the state forest division’s pension costs were expected to have increased by more than 250 percent since the 2009-2011 biennium.
So are the agency’s fire costs – in particular, how they suck away dollars from other forest programs.
The agency doesn’t track how its non-fire divisions subsidize fire costs. But the fire program draws heavily on staff from across the agency during wildfire season, emptying the hallways and bringing work on other initiatives to a near halt, often for weeks at a time.
A 2016 Secretary of State audit found other programs were subsidizing fire costs, including training, staff fire equipment and supplies, specialized trucks, upgraded radios, discounted equipment rental rates and administrative overhead.
Despite repeated requests over a period of months from The Oregonian/OregonLive, agency officials said they could not provide a line item report tracking the division’s individual expenses, including the PERS and fire figures, or how they had changed over time.
Agency leaders said they don’t track expenses in a format that allows them to produce a report detailing them over time. Instead, they provided the news organization with a summary of expenses in three broad categories — personal services, services and supplies, and capital outlay – and how much they increased between 2011 and 2016.
In general terms, the agency did say that the cost of its recreation program, endangered species monitoring, fire protection and reforestation have all been increasing. They also point to growing administrative costs and the standard inflation for salaries and medical costs. But the figures were often non-specific and outdated, if they were provided at all.
Tom Imeson, the forestry board chair, says the agency has been looking for a viable solution to its budget problems – one that can also boost conservation outcomes — ever since he was appointed in 2012.
“To say our inability to develop a solution to this problem has been frustrating would be a massive understatement, but I don’t believe it is the result of a failure to understand the economics.” he said. “If we conclude that we cannot do so, we will need to explain why not and offer suggestions for other tools that are beyond our current authority.”
For years, coastal residents and environmental groups have pushed state forestry officials and the Legislature for tighter restrictions on clearcutting and aerial weed killer spraying in Oregon’s forests.
And for years, little has changed in Oregon, where the timber industry gives more money to state lawmakers than anywhere else in the nation. Oregon trails neighboring West Coast states on a long list of environmental protections.
Now advocates are turning to another avenue — the ballot box. And there, too, they’ve been stymied. This time it’s by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, led by two former Republican lawmakers whose campaigns drew significant financial backing from timber companies.
The three ballot measures — Initiative Petitions 35, 36 and 37 — are substantially the same. They call for tightening the state’s aerial spraying laws, which today offer some of the West Coast’s weakest protections for people and fish. They call for more logging restrictions in steep, landslide-prone areas. They would prohibit conflicts of interest for state forestry board appointees, who today can set policies that benefit their own companies.
But the Secretary of State’s elections division last week rejected the initiatives proposed by environmental advocates, including the group Oregon Wild, saying they related to more than one subject. The Oregon constitution says each ballot initiative can only address a single policy topic.
“When you have things with all sorts of things to do with a forest – setbacks and sprays and rivers – that’s more than one subject,” Secretary of State Bev Clarno said in an interview. “When you’re talking about creating an advisory board, and issues about how you can spray and set aside, that’s a lot of different subjects on how to manage a forest.”
Former Oregon lawmaker Richard Vial, Clarno’s deputy, also played a role in the decision. He is considering a campaign for Clarno’s spot in 2020; she has said she will not run.
Two elections attorneys called the rejection unprecedented and Clarno’s decision to perform her own legal review unusual.
The rejection delays proponents, who now must refile shorter initiatives while potentially challenging Clarno’s decision in court. The petitioners need the secretary of state’s approval before they can start collecting more than 100,000 signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.
In each rejection, the secretary adopted arguments advanced by opponents of the initiatives. Those groups immediately celebrated Clarno’s action, which had been sought by the recently formed group Timber Unity and by Greg Chaimov, an attorney who has represented timber and pesticide interests.
On its Facebook page, Timber Unity called it “AMAZING NEWS!”, saying the initiatives were “trying to kill private forestry in Oregon.”
Kristina McNitt, president of the Oregon Forest and Industries Council, said the state’s existing forestry protections are sound and the initiatives “will face considerable constitutional hurdles and vehement objections by our industry.”
The initiative’s backers said they were stunned by the rejection, calling it evidence that Clarno and Vial are not as committed to running a politically agnostic office as the two Republicans have claimed. They said the explanation is clear: A political system fueled by timber industry dollars.
“It’s an office that says it wants to be nonpartisan doing something that is explicitly partisan,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild. “It calls into question the confidence that people can have in their government. The grip the industry has on things is extending everywhere.”
As a lawmaker, Oregon House Speaker and candidate for state treasurer in the 1990s and early 2000s, Clarno took more than $36,000 in donations from timber interests. Vial took $19,000.
Then-Rep. Richard Vial, R-Scholls, in the House of Representatives chamber in 2017. (File/The Oregonian)
Clarno, when asked whether her decision was linked to party politics or her past backing by the timber industry, responded simply: “Bull.”
“I really do believe, in this office, partisanship has no business,” she said.
The attorney general typically provides a written opinion explaining why an initiative doesn’t pass legal muster. That opinion is typically made public, as a way to allow petitioners to redraft their initiative and ensure it complies with the law.
This time, the secretary of state didn’t ask for an opinion in writing, and the attorney general’s office didn’t draft one. Instead, an assistant attorney general met in person with officials in the secretary of state’s office. No one will disclose what the attorney said about the legality of the initiatives.
Clarno refused to waive attorney-client privilege to allow the attorney general to speak about it with a reporter. Vial at first refused to release even the name of the assistant attorney general who discussed the initiatives with him, saying her identity was protected by attorney-client privilege.
“Why would the public need to know that?” he asked, before eventually providing assistant attorney general Amy Alpaugh’s name.
Clarno, in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, said she based her decision on analysis conducted by her own staff — Vial and elections director Steve Trout. “I thought I was in good hands,” she said.
Clarno said “we did not get a yes/no” from the attorney general about the initiatives’ legality, rather an assurance “that if I ended up in court they would defend me.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, said she could not discuss the measures because the secretary of state would not waive attorney-client privilege. The spokeswoman, Kristina Edmunson, confirmed that the Department of Justice was “involved in conversations” with Clarno’s office about the initiatives. But she also contradicted part of Clarno’s account.
“We have not said (and were not asked) whether we would, or would not, defend their office in case of a lawsuit,” Edmunson said in an email. She said the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who was elected in 2016, had changed the initiative review process, asking the Department of Justice only to review initiatives upon request.
To qualify for the ballot, initiatives must pertain to a single subject. The same ballot initiative couldn’t ask voters to create campaign donation limits, permit grocery stores to sell liquor and outlaw the death penalty. It’s called the single-subject rule.
Oregon courts have strictly interpreted the single-subject rule for proposed constitutional amendments. But they’ve treated it far more permissively for changes to often-complicated state statutes, like those the forestry initiatives seek to change.
“It is a very lenient test,” said Dan Meek, a Portland elections attorney. “It is very difficult to violate the single-subject requirement.”
It’s so hard to violate that Meek and another attorney who has written multiple ballot measures said they didn’t think the Secretary of State had ever rejected an initiative to change state law on single-subject grounds.
“It just raises eyebrows to me,” said Margaret Olney, a Portland attorney who has drafted ballot initiatives for progressive groups including Our Oregon and Planned Parenthood. “It’s extremely surprising that there isn’t at least a short letter of explanation for purposes of transparency to allow the chief petitioners to fix any problems. That has been the standard.”
Meek read the ballot proposals and said they clearly relate to the same subject.
“It’s weird,” Meek said. “When the proponents take this to court, they will win – easily.”
Clarno’s office released a deeper explanation late Thursday night, after inquiries from The Oregonian/OregonLive about discrepancies in the reasons separately provided by Clarno, Vial and Trout.
In the news release, Clarno said questions about aerial spraying in forests and “how the Oregon Forest Council manages forests” are very different. “These aspects of the proposed measures would potentially confuse voters,” she said.
Oregon forest laws are in fact managed by the governor-appointed, seven-member Board of Forestry.
The Oregon Forest Council does not exist, though the Oregon Forest & Industries Council is a lobbying group that has donated to both Clarno and Vial’s campaigns.
The first Roger Neugebauer heard about the Norriston Heights timber sale was two days before the end of the public comment period, which closed May 2. A neighbor emailed him and described the Oregon Department of Forestry’s plan to clearcut the 77-acre forest plot.
Neugebauer was stunned. The tract of timber sits directly across Highway 101 from his house in Arch Cape, just south of Cannon Beach. He hadn’t heard a peep from the agency. Neither had most of the owners of 20 neighboring homes, all of whom draw their water from gravity fed cisterns in the forest collecting groundwater under the trees slated for harvest.
“They claimed they couldn’t inform us because it was too complicated,” Neugebauer said. “They could have printed 20 copies of a letter and hired a high school kid in Cannon Beach to put it in front of everyone’s door and they would have got the communication done. But they couldn’t figure that out.”
“It’s not hard to find us,” added another neighbor, Jay Haladay. “We’re right across the damn street.”
On Monday, agency officials will hold their first public meeting about the sale with the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners. And, capitulating to angry neighbors, it will announce that it plans to delay the sale for a year in order to work with locals and finds some “mutually acceptable solutions” to their concerns.
The agency’s policy on timber sales requires a 45-day public comment period, but doesn’t specify which parties should be notified prior to or during that period. In this case, however, officials now acknowledge that they screwed up.
“We could have done better as an agency to reach out earlier in this case,” said Jason Cox, an agency spokesman. “We’re committed to improving our engagement both with the general public as well as specific parties with potential concerns.”
But for the agency these days, time is money. And based on a forestry department report, Norriston Heights is a potentially lucrative sale. It requires a nominal investment in roads — $43,200 — and would bring in an estimated $981,750. That’s the kind of sale that agency leaders have explicitly directed foresters to focus on as they try to dig out of deep financial problems by identifying “high net revenue” sales.
Translation: Easily accessible clearcuts that don’t require big investments.
The state forest division has struggled since the 2008 recession to find a path to financial viability. Meanwhile, the agency at large is mired in a cash flow crisis that has it borrowing heavily from state forest cash reserves to float nearly $100 million it has failed to collect from wildfire costs dating back to 2015.
The Norriston Heights sale also would be good news for Clatsop County and its local taxing districts, as they get nearly two-thirds of the net revenue from state forestland harvests. Clatsop and 14 other counties rely on money from state harvests to pay for basic services. They also depend on the logging and mill jobs the harvests provide their communities.
Cox, the agency spokesman, emphasized that point in an email to a neighbor who raised concerns about Norriston Heights in July: “The area required minimal infrastructure investment, is of relatively simple complexity and offers a high rate of return to benefit local services like schools, transportation, health care, law enforcement and rural fire protection.”
“Simple complexity” is agency lingo for the type of forest with smaller, relatively young trees. “Complex forest,” by contrast, are those lands with prime habitat that the agency is aiming to protect. According the agency’s Forest Management Plan, it is actively managing state lands so 30% of forests will grow to become complex at some undefined point in the future.
But it’s a goal it is largely failing to accomplish. In real life, the percentage of complex forests is going down. It currently stands at just over 10%.
The Norriston Heights unit was classified as complex forest until last spring, when the agency decided to cut it. And a portion of the tract was part of designated conservation areas until 2010, when financial problems led it to reduce the amount of public forests across the state it aimed to protect from 40% to 30%, freeing up more land for harvest. This spring, the agency resurveyed the plot and designated it as “understory,” a less complex forest structure that can typically be logged without much blowback from conservation groups.
Agency officials said the plot was resurveyed using agency protocols. It was previously clearcut in the 1950s, and they said, the 68-year-old plot had yet to attain complex structure.
Risks to habitat, drinking water
The stretch of woods near Arch Cape proposed for clearcut is the backdrop to one the most popular tourist destinations on the coast. Three quarters of a million visitors stop each year at Arcadia Beach and Hug Point state recreation sites that bracket the stand and countless more drive by on Highway 101. That’s a social value the agency is supposed to take into account under its statutory mandate to manage forests for the “greatest permanent value” to Oregonians.
Cannon Beach Mayor Sam Steidel emphasized that point in a September letter to the agency.
“The Norriston Heights property is unique because it is the only state forestland on the coast in Clatsop County,” he wrote. “Because of its special value – scenic, wildlife and drinking water – we ask that you cancel the sale and permanently protect it as high value conservation land.”
The sale area directly adjoins a stand of giant Western Red Cedars containing Oregon’s largest tree – the Arcadia Cedar — which is already a protection area for the endangered Marbled Murrelet. The presence of an endangered species nearby — and possibility that logging would harm its habitat — considerably ups the ante on any timber harvest.
Department surveys in 2003 showed “significant behavior indicative of stand occupancy” directly to the north. Murrelets were also detected flying over the harvest unit. But the department says that was evidence of presence, not occupancy. Cox, the agency spokesman, said the sale area was surveyed again in 2017 and 2018 and no murrelets were observed.
Yet there’s no question that the land holds valuable water. The Arch Cape neighborhood’s supply is piped from cisterns that sit about 50 to 75 feet into the woods, under Highway 101 and into private pump houses that filter and pressurize it for supply to the homes. It’s already a precarious, low-tech and high-maintenance system, prone to clogging year round and low flows when rain is scarce in the summer.
Neighbors worry the clearcut could ruin the natural groundwater filtration and further decrease water flows. They’re also anxious that pesticide spraying will poison the water they do get, making the neighborhood unlivable.
It’s not an unfounded concern. They need only look south to Rockaway Beach, where clearcutting on private land in the Jetty Creek watershed left high levels of a cancer-causing byproduct in the town’s drinking water, and aerial spraying left traces of a potent herbicide in the creek. The department has received similar complaints about clearcuts from residents to the south in Neahkahnie. Indeed, mud from hillside clearcuts and logging roads threaten drinking water up and down the Oregon coast.
For Norriston Heights, agency geotechnical analyses acknowledge that the harvest might decrease summer flows, which it says would be most pronounced in the decade after harvest. But it also suggested that its plan to replant the area with fewer trees than are currently there may result in more available water. Agency officials also told neighbors that they would establish stream buffers larger than those required by the state law and the agency’s normal standards to minimize landslide risks and the impacts of sediment on their collection systems.
Liz Dent, chief of the state forest division, said the agency had listened to feedback and modified the sale accordingly. “In this case,” she said, “we put together a timber sale that exceeded our own standards.”
Thomas Merrell, who manages the waters systems for many Arch Cape neighbors, has a more cynical view after dealing with the agency for two decades.
“They look at you nod their head and say they can do what they want and that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said. “Historically, that’s the way it works.”
Thomas Merrell is a water consultant who helps manage water systems for many homeowners near Arch Cape. He and other neighbors are worried that a clearcut would harm their community’s only water source.
When the Arch Cape neighbors did learn of the plan, they organized an informational meeting for July 2. It was supposed to be the agency’s show, with a district forester there to explain the plan. About 65 people showed up. But at the last minute, the forester who was supposed to attend decided he wasn’t coming.
“He had obtained an e-mail that had been circulating about ODF being at Hug Point the morning of July 2nd to discuss the clear cut,” said Nadine Mathis Basha, the neighbor who organized the meeting. “He told me that he wasn’t going to meet with those people who were not even affected by the clear cut. I don’t remember exactly what he said but that is the essence.”
Dent says that’s a mischaracterization of the forester’s response. She said he didn’t go because some of the neighbors, as well as the water manager for many of the systems, couldn’t be there.
With the agency’s decision on Wednesday to defer the timber sale for a year, locals say they’ll use the time to hire their own experts to evaluate landslide and water risks.
The agency’s reversal came after inquiries from legislators as well as pressure at the Board of Forestry. Haladay, the Norriston Heights neighbor, asked the board at its early September meeting whether the agency had followed its own protocols when reclassifying the forest. He described the agency’s lack of outreach to affected homeowners and asked forestry officials to cancel the sale.
“ODF needs to come back and say we didn’t do this right,” he said.
That caught the attention of board member Brenda McComb, who asked State Forester Peter Daugherty whether the agency had any response.
Daugherty said the agency was still considering the sale and would be holding an information meeting with the Clatsop County Commission to discuss it. But he said this was the first he’d heard of any formal request to cancel the sale.
It certainly wasn’t the first such request to the agency. Halladay made the same request to the agency in early July. Thirteen environmental groups also had asked the agency in May to pull the sale, raising concerns about coastal erosion and Marbled Murrelet habitat. Another advocacy group, The Ecola Creek Awareness Project, made the same request during the agency’s public comment period in May.
Board member Jim Kelly told Daugherty at the September meeting that he thought Norriston Heights was an unusual situation given its proximity to homes, and the sale might merit more attention from the agency.
The forestry board is the agency’s policy oversight board. But Daugherty cut off any further conversation by citing a specific section of Oregon Administrative Rules that limit the board’s authority to second guess particular timber sales.
“Just to be real clear,” he concluded, “you’re not directing or giving me any advice in this matter. Thanks.”
The Oregon Department of Forestry has failed to collect nearly $100 million it is owed for wildfire costs dating back as far as 2015, creating a cash flow crunch that is undermining core operations and forcing its leaders into a financial shell game to pay the bills.
In June, agency leaders restructured a $50 million line of credit with the Oregon Treasury to avoid default. Then they borrowed $18 million from the Department of Administrative Services to cover two months of payroll costs – loans they’re required to “repay” in coming months but will immediately renew to keep cash on hand.
Meanwhile, the agency has been forced to drain internal cash reserves that support other departments, tapping one fund that is supposed to support state forests for $27 million and another for private forest landowners for $15 million.
Those funds must be repaid, too, and officials acknowledge that their temporary subsidization of fire costs is hampering work in other areas. The agency has put a freeze on an all non-essential spending to conserve cash, including computer and motor pool purchases, travel and training.
The cash flow problem only came to light in mid-June, when the agency nearly defaulted on its line of credit from Treasury. It eventually paid off half of its $50 million obligation, but extended the repayment period for the other half until April. That may not be an option going forward, as Treasury might not be willing to continue the practice.
“As the frequency and severity of Oregon’s fire costs grow, along with the complexity and duration of underlying repayment mechanisms, Treasury’s interfund borrowing program may no longer be the right tool to support these ongoing cash flow needs,” Rachel Wray, a spokeswoman for Treasury said Tuesday.
That near default prompted the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee to demand a monthly memo from State Forester Peter Daugherty detailing the agency’s financial condition and the steps he is taking to solve the problem.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose and one of the three co-chairs, said the agency had not been forthcoming with the size or the nature of the problem with the Legislature or the Board of Forestry. She said she’s still trying to piece together “what I consider to be a crisis.”
“There has not, in my view, been a complete disclosure of the problem,” she said. “I am terribly disappointed by the agency’s inability to process its outstanding claims that stretch back four years,” Johnson said. “At some point the data may become irretrievable.”
Daugherty did send an email in mid July to Board of Forestry members describing the nature and extent of the issue.
“I take full responsibility for the department finding itself in such a precarious position, with only two weeks left in the fiscal year,” he said. “It will be important for me to ensure that clear, consistent communication between finance functions in the Fire Protection and Administration divisions are seamless and that adequate controls are in place to identify and escalate this type of issue as early as possible.”
In his August and September memos to the co-chairs, Daugherty said the root of the problem was Oregon’s outdated approach to covering firefighting costs at a time when the severity of wildfires has increased and the related costs have mushroomed.
The agency’s fire division is responsible for fighting fires on private and state land. It also contributes much of the resources needed to fight fires on lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Most of those costs are reimbursable by the state and federal government, but the agency says it simply doesn’t have financial capacity to float those escalating costs until the bills get paid.
Bill Herber, the agency’s deputy director for administration, said another issue is that the agency hasn’t been adequately staffed to process the backlog of expense claims after years of high-cost fire seasons. That involves digging through boxes of old shift tickets and lists of equipment used on fires as far back as 2015, reviewing them against old cost-sharing agreements, auditing the results and submitting the claims.
The agency just closed out its expense claims from fires in 2013 and 2014. It has $93 million in unreimbursed costs from fires between 2015 and 2018, half of which have yet to be invoiced. And though the 2019 fire season has been fairly mild to date, it has another $32 million in costs that will take at least a year to reimburse.
“Some of this just creeped up on us,” Herber said. “It all culminated pretty suddenly. It overwhelmed our ability to really track it… There’s a lot of work that goes into determining how much needs to be paid and by whom.”
The agency is currently working with the legislative fiscal office and the state’s chief financial officer to beef up its collection efforts, improve its documentation and invoicing processes, and track its cash flow on a weekly basis. Herber said the agency had transferred staff internally to address the backlog, and those efforts have led to quicker turnaround of more recent expenses and successful collection of some older debts.
Agency leaders plans to request more money to help address the crisis in the 2020 session. Longer-term, they say Oregon needs to restructure its approach to cover the cost to fight large wildfires.
“We are committed to appropriately responding to the new challenges fire seasons are presenting and working closely with the governor’s office, the governor’s council on wildfire response and legislators to identify a long-term solution,” Daugherty said in a Sept. 3 memo to the co-chairs.
Johnson said she was skeptical of the agency’s requests for general fund money when it had $93 million in reimbursements outstanding.
“It’s a management problem, or a prioritization problem,” she said.
Tom Imeson, the chair of the Board of Forestry, said problem needs a legislative fix and the board will be taking it up at an October meeting focused on strategic planning.
“This topic will be an important discussion item at that meeting.”
Kristina McNitt, president of the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, described fire protection as the number one priority for Oregon’s private forest landowners and said the department’s protection program is the envy of the nation.
But she said “the current fiscal crisis is alarming, not least of which the agency’s precipitous loan to itself of $15 million from the Oregon Forestland Protection Fund, predominantly funded by fees and taxes paid by private forestland owners. The state legislature, the Oregon Board of Forestry, and Oregon’s private forest landowners deserve answers and transparency from the agency.”
Twenty-five years ago, the Northwest Forest Plan was put in place to protect more than 24 million acres of forest in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. On the anniversary of the law, the debate over what to do with America’s ancient forests has come under new scrutiny. Jeff Glor reports.
Conrad Gowell, Native Fish Society, (971) 237-6544, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185, email@example.com
Stanley Petrowski, Umpqua Watersheds, (541) 825-3070,
Endangered Species Protections Sought for Oregon Coast Spring Chinook
Early Migrating Salmon Threatened by Logging, Hatchery Fish, Dams, Pollution
PORTLAND, Ore.— The Native Fish Society, Center for Biological Diversity and Umpqua Watersheds today filed a petition to protect Oregon coast spring-run chinook salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The safeguards would apply to salmon from below the Columbia River to Cape Blanco. Spring chinook, which are distinct from fall-run salmon, return in the spring from the ocean to freshwater rivers, staying for many months in deep pools until fall to spawn.
“Spring chinook up and down the West Coast have been cherished by many communities for their large size and exceptional taste, but sadly have undergone massive declines nearly everywhere they exist,” said Conrad Gowell, Fellowship Program Director with the Native Fish Society. “We hope this petition will be the beginning of a sustained and successful effort to reestablish abundant spring chinook on the Oregon coast.”
All runs of Oregon coast spring chinook have severely declined, and they have been completely wiped out in three coastal Oregon streams. Remaining spring chinook runs are threatened by depletion of stream flows during critical periods in summer and fall, due to logging, dams and water diversions. Other threats include habitat degradation and elevated stream temperatures caused by logging and road building, pollutants, river channelization, harvest in commercial and sport fisheries, predation by invasive fish, and climate change.
“Spring chinook are truly the king of salmon, but Oregon’s springers need protections for the cold, clean water and deep pools they require for survival,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of species under its protection, and it can save these magnificent fish.”
Four salmon hatcheries operating on the Oregon coast artificially propagate spring-run salmon. The goal of these hatcheries is to produce fish for anglers, but in recent years there have not been enough returning adult salmon to produce the next generation. Additionally, hatcheries not aimed at helping rebuild fish stocks may be jeopardizing wild spring chinook by creating competition between hatchery and wild fish and unintendedly producing hybrid spring-run and fall-run chinook. Hybrid salmon are not fit for long-term survival in natural habitats, and are likely contributing to the disappearance of spring chinook.
“Spring chinook are a keystone species that benefits an entire expanse of the web of life, from bears to humans to forests to orcas,” said Stanley Petrowski with Umpqua Watersheds. “We are asking the Fisheries Service to recognize the significant role of springers in our complex coastal ecosystems and give them the protections they need for recovery.”
Background Former spring-run chinook populations in the Siuslaw, Coos and Salmon rivers no longer exist. Very small populations remain in the Tillamook, Nestucca, Siletz, Alsea and Coquille rivers. The North Umpqua River supports the only remaining large spring-run chinook population on the Oregon coast, with variable returns of 2,500 to 16,000 spawners annually. By contrast the South Umpqua River had only 51 adult spring-run fish return to spawn in 2019.
Early return salmon and steelhead in California are also imperiled. In 2011 the Center petitioned to list spring-run chinook in the Klamath River under the Endangered Species Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service denied the petition, arguing spring-run aren’t distinct enough from the more abundant fall-run chinook.
Since then several scientific studies have shown that spring-run fish are indeed genetically distinct, with the evolution of early returning salmon and steelhead occurring millions of years ago. This difference in spawning run timing is highly unlikely to occur again if these distinct early return populations are lost.
The Karuk Tribe re-petitioned for Klamath springers in 2017, and in 2018 received an initial positive finding from the Fisheries Service that listing may be warranted. In 2018 Friends of the Eel River petitioned to list summer-run steelhead in Northern California, and the Service made a positive initial finding in April 2019. The agency is currently conducting status reviews for Klamath spring-run chinook and Northern California summer steelhead.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Native Fish Society is a nonprofit conservation organization that cultivates a groundswell of public support for reviving abundant wild fish, free-flowing rivers, and thriving local communities across the Pacific Northwest.
Umpqua Watersheds is dedicated to the protection and restoration of the ecosystems of the Umpqua watershed and beyond through education, training, advocacy and ecologically sound stewardship.
SALEM, Ore.— Late Wednesday afternoon after hours of deliberation, the Oregon Board of Forestry voted 5-2 to accept a petition for rulemaking on coho salmon. The petition was brought by 22 different conservation and fishing groups under a rarely used portion of the Forest Practices Act which requires the Board to consider forest protections on private and state land when species are listed under state or federal endangered species acts. The Board is required to identify “resource sites” for listed species and subsequently develop rules to protect these species if threatened by state and private logging practices.
While coho salmon have been threatened with extinction for years, the Board of Forestry has until now never initiated a state-mandated review of its rules to protect the fish. “The Oregon Forest Practices Act requires the Board of Forestry to address conflicts between logging and habitat for species at risk of extinction,” said Nick Cady, Legal Director with Cascadia Wildlands. “The major ongoing conflict between logging practices and coho salmon habitat is finally getting the hard look it deserves.”
The Board has only undertaken such efforts for a handful of bird species and had never done such work for coho salmon, which are listed as threatened by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The petition specifically asked the Board to (1) collect and analyze the best available information on coho salmon; (2) conduct a resource site inventory; and (3) adopt rules to protect resource sites and to develop a process to identify new sites in the future.
“This resource site process allows the state of Oregon to take a wholistic look at the numerous different ways logging impacts salmon and its breeding habitat. Practices that perpetuate poor habitat conditions like intensive logging too close to streams and on landslide-prone areas, sediment from forest roads, and large areas dominated by clear-cuts and said Robyn Janssen with Rogue Riverkeeper. “Oregon’s rules for state and private timberlands are the weakest in the Pacific Northwest, and it is encouraging to see the Board take its first steps towards addressing these deficiencies.”
Oregon has relied heavily on voluntary measures by timber companies to protect coho. Between 1995 and 2017, taxpayers invested $65 million dollars of public funds on instream habitat restoration efforts. However, Oregon’s weak forest practices rules still allow logging to degrade aquatic habitat critical to the recovery of coho salmon.
“It is an obvious case of one step forward, two steps back. We need to address the root causes of fish decline. The public’s investments in habitat restoration activities cannot keep up with the pace or scale of the ongoing degradation from poor forest practices,” said Nick Cady. “The Board has a perfect opportunity now to address these inefficiencies and meaningfully address salmon recovery where it matters most.”
McComb, fellow forestry board member Cindy Deacon Williams and two consultants separately hired by environmental advocates are arguing the department’s work is riddled with biases and analytical flaws. One reviewer deemed them “sufficiently severe to preclude any defendable assessment of compliance rates.”
In response, the Department of Forestry says it is confident in its numbers but has nonetheless commissioned another statistical review by Oregon State University. It expects that to be completed this month.
All this means the state has spent five years and close to a million dollars to find out how many people and companies follow state logging rules — and came away with an answer that’s now being called essentially worthless.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Williams said. She first expressed her concerns about the numbers before ODF cited them in legislative testimony. She now says she’d like to see the monitoring redone and the record corrected.
“You can’t legislate or guide policy in a vacuum of ignorance,” she said. “We simply don’t have the information that we need in order to know whether our policies are responsible and are achieving our aims.”
Is The Law Working?
The effectiveness of Oregon’s Forest Practices Act is at the center of contentious debates about private logging.
Thousands of timber harvests take place in Oregon every year, on vast corporate forests and small family-owned woodlots.
The 288 rules of the Forest Practices Act govern them all. They dictate how many trees must be left standing alongside streams to keep them shady and cool for salmon. They govern forest road construction to lower the chances of a landslide. They direct foresters on when trees must be replanted, and more.
Oregon’s comprehensive law was the first of its kind when it was passed in 1971, but environmental advocates say it has since become the weakest state forestry law on the West Coast.
It remains the law that state officials use in defending against claims from the federal government that Oregon hasn’t adequately protected coastal streams. It’s what industry lobbyists extol and environmental lobbyists rail against.
Central to understanding the effectiveness of this law is the question of how well it’s being followed. So, back in 2011, the Oregon Legislature directed ODF to conduct an annual study of Forest Practices Act compliance, using an independent contractor to collect data from a sampling of forest owners.
The agency began by reviewing how well forestland owners and the timber industry were complying with rules on harvesting trees, building and maintaining forest roads and protecting water quality.
In Line With Other States
Its work found an overall compliance rate of 98% in 2017, the most recent year completed. The state also calculates compliance rates for specific rules, ownership classes and regions. Forest industry representatives say they are confident in the accuracy of those numbers, as do several members of the state’s forestry board.
Joe Justice, a board member who works for Hancock Forest Management in Eastern Oregon, said ODF foresters use the audits to identify areas where they need to work with landowners before, during and after tree harvests.
“Compliance Audits are just one way the Department monitors Forest Practices,” Justice said in an email. “A great deal of valuable information is gained from these audits including information and trends that help ODF focus training and education.”
Marganne Allen, ODF Forest Health & Monitoring Manager, said Oregon’s reported compliance rates are credible. She pointed out that they also fall in line with those reported by other states, which have found that landowners and timber operators are abiding by forestry laws at compliance rates that range from 61% to 99%, according to the Society of American Foresters.
“This has been a very repeatable outcome over time,” Allen said. She said the latest findings also are consistent with previous ODF studies dating back to 2002.
Department of Forestry officials say they are working to improve the way they check on logging-related activities. The department plans to involve statisticians from OSU in reviewing future audits, the next of which will focus on how landowners plant trees after harvesting. The department also opened up its external review team, Allen said, but the environmental groups criticizing its latest audit declined to participate.
A Flawed, Selective Method
A major concern they raised is who the department included and who is left out. The state made 345 inquiries with potential audit participants but ultimately studied only about one-third of them.
Participation was voluntary. Some landowners refused to give state foresters access to their woodlots — something the law permits them to do.
Don Stevens, a retired OSU statistician who reviewed the work at the request of the Wild Salmon Center, is the reviewer who said the audit’s flaws undermine the credibility of the state’s reported forestry-rule compliance rates. He said ODF’s sampling provides “enormous potential for non-response bias.” In other words, there’s no way to know if that method left out thousands of acres of forest land rife with violations. And should that be the case, the Department of Forestry’s overall picture of how well Oregon’s Forest Practices Act has been followed could be wildly inaccurate.
Stevens and others say the problems go beyond the collection of bad data. They say the department’s analysis of that data is also flawed.
Chris Mendoza, an environmental consultant who has worked on compliance monitoring for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, reviewed ODF’s work for the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition. He equated ODF’s methods to finding out that 200 out of 1,000 motorists pulled over by police were exceeding the speed limit — and assuming those 200 were the only speeders out of all 100,000 cars on the highway that day.
“If ODF intended to choose a method that selectively depicts the highest possible compliance rates for forest practices rules … then ODF’s reporting ‘methods’ hits that mark,” Mendoza wrote in his assessment.
The ODF’s Allen said her agency wanted to account for the fact that not all timber harvests are the same, and some landowners may be encountering the law more often than others.
Larger Questions About The Agency
“You can have one harvest unit that has only, say, 100 feet of road. Another may have 500 feet of road. So it’s important to get across some metric of not all harvest units are equal, and that they’ll have a different number of times that a given rule is applied.”
She said no issues had been raised with this method in the past, but that she expected OSU’s expertise to inform how they approach it in the future.
For some board members and advocates, the audit raised larger questions about how the agency works.
Bob Van Dyk of the Wild Salmon Center noted that, save for members from the Department of Environmental Quality, the audit’s external review committee was made up entirely of people from forest companies and industry trade groups.
“This audit shows that the agency that’s charged with protecting our forest waters is too close to the timber industry that they regulate,” Van Dyk said. “And that we can’t be confident in the quality of the laws, nor in their implementation.”
Williams, who was a fisheries biologist for 30 years before serving on the Board of Forestry, said the audit appears to be part of a pattern that causes her to be skeptical of scientific information coming out of the forestry department.
At a Board of Forestry meeting in early June, Williams voiced concerns that a board-ordered review of the science on the effects of forest practices on stream temperatures in Oregon’s Siskiyou forests omitted studies that were both relevant and indicated a need for changes in management to reach water quality objectives.
She said the agency’s work has the appearance of a bias toward upholding the status quo.
“It certainly feels that way,” Williams said in a phone interview. “I don’t know if it is an intentional bias or not, you know, I don’t know what’s causing it, but the result is that we are being given sort of a rose-colored glasses picture of the world.”