Douglas firs form the backbone of the timber industry, make homes for wildlife, protect watersheds and fish dependent on them, and grow taller than any other living thing in the Northwest. This conifer also happens to be the state tree of Oregon and the one that’s proudly displayed on our license plates.
This change could dwarf anything we’ve seen in past conflicts about logging the last few percent of ancient forests that remain available versus letting them stand, or about clearcutting versus other timber prescriptions. A hotter climate will cut us all off at the knees if we don’t do something about it.
Virtually all climate scientists who are not paid by fossil-fuel industries agree that burning oil, gas, and coal accounts for the lion’s share of greenhouse gases heating the earth and making life for Douglas firs miserable. Climate change is bringing heat waves and hot winds that burn timberlands and whole towns, it’s pushing sea-level up toward homes and highways, causing some of the worst droughts in memory, and producing floods because our mountains are drenched in rain instead of snow. With our own eyes, we’re all seeing those changes. Experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on down say that converting to renewable energy is the essential remedy.
Whatever thrives instead of Douglas firs is not going to compete for timber or ecosystem values. The forest that has enriched us all will be infected by pathogens and dwarfed from the grandeur and utility we’ve known. Of course, this won’t happen overnight. The delay makes it easy for those of us who are focused on annual profits or rely on monthly paychecks to be unconcerned. But the fate of the next generation, and even the next decade, will be vexed if action isn’t taken now.
Instead of fighting over who gets the last big tree in the woods — which is, to say, the battle of the last century — we should be working together to solve the problem of this century — one that threatens everyone’s future.
Not to tell anyone how to do their job, but the log truck drivers convoying to Salem should be honking their horns — not in opposition to climate legislation, but in favor of it. Otherwise there will be no decent logs to load onto those trucks. And wouldn’t it be logical for timber industry executives to support measures to keep their best product growing and thereby on its way to the mill?
Everyone who walks in the woods, cuts a tree, works at the plywood plant, fishes for salmon, or just looks with pleasure at a green mountainside from their porch or from the main street of town should care about this threat. The climate crisis is too often regarded as a fixation of people living in cities, but those of us in small towns and rural countrysides like mine stand to lose the most, including this tree that’s emblematic of nothing less than Oregon.
Tim Palmer is the author of “Trees and Forests of America,” “Field Guide to Oregon Rivers, and other books. He lives in Port Orford.
By Tony Schick, OPB, Rob Davis, The Oregonian/OregonLive, Lylla Younes, ProPublica
June 11, 2020
This article was produced in partnership with OPB and The Oregonian/OregonLive. OPB is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
FALLS CITY, Ore. — A few hundred feet past this Oregon timber town, a curtain of Douglas fir trees opens to an expanse of skinny stumps.
The hillside has been clear-cut, with thousands of trees leveled at once. Around the bend is another clear-cut nearly twice its size, then another, patches of desert brown carved into the forest for miles.
Logging is booming around Falls City, a town of about 1,000 residents in the Oregon Coast Range. More trees are cut in the county today than decades ago when a sawmill hummed on Main Street and timber workers and their families filled the now-closed cafes, grocery stores and shops selling home appliances, sporting goods and feed for livestock.
But the jobs and services have dried up, and the town is going broke. The library closed two years ago. And as many as half of the families in Falls City live on weekly food deliveries from the Mountain Gospel Fellowship.
“You’re left still with these companies that have reaped these benefits, but those small cities that have supported them over the years are left in the dust,” Mac Corthell, the city manager, said.
For decades, politicians, suit-and-tie timber executives and caulk-booted tree fallers alike have blamed the federal government and urban environmental advocates for kneecapping the state’s most important industry.
Timber sales plummeted in the 1990s after the federal government dramatically reduced logging in national forests in response to protests and lawsuits to protect the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws. The drop left thousands of Oregonians without jobs, and counties lost hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
But the singularly focused narrative, the only one most Oregonians know, masked another devastating shift for towns like Falls City.
Wall Street real estate trusts and investment funds began gaining control over the state’s private forestlands. They profited at the expense of rural communities by logging more aggressively with fewer environmental protections than in neighboring states, while reaping the benefits of timber tax cuts that have cost counties at least $3 billion in the past three decades, an investigation by OPB, The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica found.
Half of the 18 counties in Oregon’s timber-dominant region lost more money from tax cuts on private forests than from the reduction of logging on federal lands, the investigation shows.
Private timber owners used to pay what was known as a severance tax, which was based on the value of the trees they logged. But the tax, which helped fund schools and local governments, was eliminated for all but the smallest timber owners, who can choose to pay it as a means to further reduce annual property taxes.
The total value of timber logged on private lands since 1991 is approximately $67 billion when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis of data from Oregon’s Department of Forestry. If the state’s severance tax had not been phased out, companies would have paid an estimated $3 billion during the same period. Instead, cities and counties collected less than a third of that amount, or roughly $871 million.
Polk County, home to Falls City, has lost approximately $29 million in revenue from timber sales on federal land. By comparison, the elimination of the severance tax and lower property taxes for private timber companies have cost the county at least $100 million.
“You have that tension between this industry that still employs people, but we’re losing some of the benefits of that relationship,” Falls City Mayor Jeremy Gordon said. “As those jobs diminish, there’s less and less support to subsidize that industry in the community.”
“A completely different business model”
Oregon’s connection to the timber industry is so tightly knit that casinos, high school mascots and coffee roasters take their names from mills, loggers and stumps. The state Capitol is domed by a golden pioneer carrying an ax, and its House chamber carpeting is adorned with trees. The mascot of the Portland Timbers, a Major League Soccer team, is a logger who revs a chainsaw and cuts a round off a Douglas fir tree after every home goal.
While the industry today still rakes in billions of dollars annually, it’s starkly different from the one that helped build and enrich the state.
Oregon lowered taxes and maintained weaker environmental protections on private forestlands than neighboring states in exchange for jobs and economic investment from the timber industry.
Despite such concessions, the country’s top lumber-producing state has fewer forest-sector jobs per acre and collects a smaller share of logging profits than Washington or California.
If Oregon taxed timber owners the same as its neighbors, which are also top lumber producers with many of the same companies, it would generate tens of millions of dollars more for local governments.
Timber once employed 1 in every 10 working Oregonians and pumped over $120 million per year into schools and county governments through severance and property taxes. Now, it employs 1 in every 50 working residents and pays about $24 million in severance and property taxes that go directly back to communities.
The profits are concentrated with a small number of companies controlled by real estate trusts, investment funds and wealthy timber families. Small timber owners, who grow forests that are older and more biologically diverse than what corporate owners manage, have sold off hundreds of thousands of acres.
In western Oregon, at least 40% of private forestlands are now owned by investment companies that maximize profits by purchasing large swaths of forestland, cutting trees on a more rapid cycle than decades ago, exporting additional timber overseas instead of using local workers to mill them and then selling the properties after they’ve been logged.
Such intensive timber farming contributes to global warming because younger trees don’t store carbon dioxide as well as older ones. It also relies heavily on the use of herbicides and fertilizers, magnifies drought conditions and degrades habitat for wildlife such as threatened salmon and native songbirds.
Jerry Anderson, region manager for Hancock Forest Management, one of the largest timber investment companies in Oregon, said local leadership makes decisions about the best practices for the land despite responsibilities to investors.
“There’s nobody from outside this area that has come in and told us what to do on these individual plantations. Those are local decisions,” said Anderson, who has been managing land in Polk County under various companies for the past 40 years. The last eight years have been with Hancock. “I think our decision-making is very measured.”
In investor materials, Hancock, which belongs to the publicly traded, $25 billion Canadian Manulife Financial, says that it is well-equipped for the shift from managing natural forests to plantations of trees designed to grow as fast and as straight as possible, like arrows jutting out from the ground.
From a distance, tree plantations can be confused for natural forests. Oregon vistas still boast hundreds of thousands of acres of green treetops. But, on the ground, plantations of trees crammed together are often eerily barren, devoid of lush vegetation and wildlife.
Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said that he and his advisers were alarmed by the shift toward investor-driven forestry during his last of three terms in office. By then, forest ecologists, the U.S. Forest Service and even a former chief investment officer for Hancock had published papers warning that investor-driven forestry was ecologically damaging and less capable of sustaining rural communities.
“They have a completely different business model,” Kitzhaber, a Democrat, said.
Kitzhaber, who received nearly $200,000 in contributions from timber-connected donors while in office, supported multiple industry-backed measures during his tenure. He led a plan to save Oregon’s salmon that relied on voluntary measures from timber companies instead of regulations, and he signed into law a massive tax cut for the industry that’s still felt in many counties.
“The current state isn’t working,” Kitzhaber said in an interview. It may benefit investors, he said, “but it’s not working for small mill owners. It’s not working for rural communities. They don’t have any control of their future.”
A forest town surrounded by corporate trees
From his favorite spot on a hill near Falls City, Ed Friedow can see what he refers to as the big picture: the Oregon coast, rolling hills, a national forest and industrial lands now managed mostly by timber investment companies.
Friedow, a logger who grew up on a farm outside of town, watched as smaller timber companies from his childhood closed in the aftermath of the spotted owl protections, leaving control of the industry with larger companies that were more equipped to scale production.
“All of a sudden, it was just like a takeover situation,” Friedow said.
At the same time the changes were happening in Oregon, the timber industry was emerging from a nationwide recession that caused widespread bankruptcies in the 1980s. Many debt-laden companies began selling off forestlands. Meanwhile, changes in the federal tax code made timber an attractive investment that wouldn’t crash with the stock market.
Under federal tax law, pension funds and other investors can acquire forestlands without paying the corporate taxes incurred by traditional timber companies that mill their own products. Those corporate taxes have reached 35%. Investors in the company instead pay a capital gains tax closer to 15%.
In the 1990s, as federal logging plummeted, timber prices skyrocketed, making those investments look even smarter, said Brooks Mendell, president of the forest investment consultancy Forisk.
“Overnight, private landowners had something that became more valuable,” Mendell said.
Federal payments to Oregon’s western counties dropped precipitously
Investors jumped at the opportunity to own timber, and existing companies like Weyerhaeuser restructured to take advantage of the tax breaks. The longtime Seattle-based timber company converted into a real estate investment trust in 2010.
Timber investment companies, a rarity in the 1990s, now control a share of the forestland in western Oregon roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Weyerhaeuser, the largest of such companies, has more than doubled its size in western Oregon over the past 15 years, the investigation by the three news organizations found. The company owns more than 1.5 million of western Oregon’s 6.5 million acres of private forestland.
The two largest Wall Street-backed logging companies gained ground
Between 2006 and 2019 the current largest Wall Street-backed logging companies, Weyerhaeuser and Hancock Forest Management, more than doubled the amount of forest land they owned in Western Oregon.
Despite its growth, Weyerhaeuser employs fewer people than it did two decades ago and has shed most of its mill operations. It has three wood products facilities in Oregon and directly employs about 950 people, fewer than a quarter of the 4,000 employees the company listed in a 2006 news release. The decrease stems from factors that include consolidation and automation of jobs in mills.
Just outside of Falls City, Weyerhaeuser owns roughly 21,000 acres. The company controls the road into the forest that leads to public lands and the land surrounding the creeks that supply the town’s drinking water. In 2006, the city temporarily shut down its water treatment plant because it was clogged with muddy runoff from logging operations.
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Karl Wirsing said the company remains a good partner to local communities. In the past five years, the company has donated nearly $1.6 million across the state, including $10,000 to the Falls City Fire Department and $16,000 to the Polk County sheriff to help fund a new position that also patrols private forestlands.
“We don’t simply do business in Oregon; our people have been living and working across the state since 1902, and we are proud of our role supporting local communities and economies,” Wirsing said in an emailed statement.
But not all communities describe the relationship as a beneficial partnership.
Corthell, the city manager in Falls City, said it took him nearly two years of phone calls and emails before Weyerhaeuser responded to his requests for help.
The stretch of road between the forest and the town is cracked like a jigsaw puzzle.
Corthell had hoped that the timber companies that use the road every day could pitch in to help pay for the $200,000 in needed repairs. But he said he didn’t get a meeting with them until after he suggested the road might close if it weren’t repaired.
At that meeting in March, representatives for Weyerhaeuser and a few other timber companies told Corthell that they were willing to provide matching funds if the town could secure a state grant. In response to questions about Weyerhaeuser’s delay in returning Corthell’s emails and calls, Wirsing said the company had previously been willing to contribute to the road project but the town never asked for a specific dollar amount.
Corthell is now preparing the town’s grant application. If the funding doesn’t come through, he doesn’t know where he’ll find the money.
“I fear my father was right”
Penelope Kaczmarek, 65, spent her childhood smelling freshly cut wood at the family mill and the sulfury wafts of the distant pulp mill through her kitchen window in the coastal fishing town of Newport more than an hour southwest of Falls City.
She watched floating logs await their turn at her father’s saw blade, mesmerized as men in hickory shirts, sawn-off jeans and hard hats rolled them across the water.
Kaczmarek’s father, W. Stan Ouderkirk, was a logger, small mill owner and Republican member of the Oregon House of Representatives in the 1960s and 1970s. He represented Lincoln County, home to the Siuslaw National Forest and a vibrant commercial fishing port.
When a large, out-of-state corporation bought his mill in the mid-1970s, Ouderkirk told his daughter that a rise of corporate ownership and loss of local control would lead to worse outcomes for Oregon’s forests and the people who depended on them.
“I fear my father was right,” Kaczmarek said.
Lincoln County lost an estimated $108 million in timber payments after the federal government restricted logging on public lands. But the sharp drop in federal forestland revenue is only partly to blame for budget cuts that have led some counties to force-release inmates from jail or reduce sheriffs patrols to the point that 911 calls for break-ins and assaults went unanswered.
Tax cuts for large timber companies that log on private lands cost the county an estimated $122 million over the same period.
Before lawmakers began chipping away at the tax through multiple measures, Lincoln County collected an average of $7.5 million a year in severance taxes. Last year, the county received just under $25,000.
Now a psychiatric social worker, Kaczmarek sees people with mental illnesses filling local jails because the county doesn’t have the money to provide adequate health services. In therapy sessions, teachers tell her about overcrowded classrooms and school programs cut to the bare minimum. County leaders blame the majority of the financial struggles on the decline in revenue from logging.
To avoid crushing cuts in services, communities that already struggle with high poverty and unemployment rates have had to raise taxes on residents and small businesses, said Jaime McGovern, an economist with the state’s Legislative Revenue Office.
“If they don’t get approved, then there’s no money there,” McGovern said. “And so, you’ve seen libraries closing, police stations closing.”
In the Marcola School District, about 15 miles northeast of Eugene, the elementary school was so dilapidated that voters in 2015 passed a bond to build a new one.
The additional funding helped, but it wasn’t enough. The new elementary school is already bursting with students.
“That hits home because I volunteer at the school district and I care about my taxes,” Helen Kennedy, a retired attorney, said. “I care about the kids.”
Kennedy, who lives on 3.5 acres in the district, saw her property taxes increase by more than 20% after she voted for the bond. Last year, Kennedy paid $1,443 in property taxes, or about $412 per acre. That’s a fraction of what she’d pay in a city like Portland, but nearly 100 times the rate of the district’s biggest landowner.
Weyerhaeuser, which owns more than 49,000 acres in the district, paid about $226,000 in property taxes last year, according to county records. That amounts to about $4.60 per acre. At the rate Kennedy’s land is taxed, the company would have had to pay an additional $20 million.
“Holy cannoli,” Kennedy, 64, said about the losses from timber tax cuts. “The old adage that ‘what is good for the timber industry is good for Oregon’ is no longer true.”
The billion-dollar tax cut almost nobody remembers
Hans Radtke knew the loss for counties was coming.
Radtke, a member of a gubernatorial task force on timber taxes, sat in a hotel conference room near the state capitol in 1999 listening to lobbyists and timber executives argue that their industry was being unfairly taxed.
In the early 1990s, as Oregon voters passed reforms to limit their property taxes, large timber companies successfully lobbied to gradually cut the severance tax in half, lowering their own bills by $30 million a year.
But now they wanted to completely eliminate the severance tax.
Timber companies argued that since they’d already cut nearly all of the existing forests on their land, and state law required them to plant new trees, they were essentially farmers. And since Oregon didn’t tax crops, it shouldn’t tax trees.
As the owner of 100 acres of forestland, Radtke could have personally benefited from the tax cut. But as an economist advising Kitzhaber, the governor at the time, he knew it would devastate rural communities.
After several failed attempts to offer changes that would lower industry taxes but avoid eliminating the severance tax altogether, Radtke knew the cut would pass. He turned to the industry lobbyist sitting next to him and said, “You’re fucking us.”
“And he just smiled,” Radtke said.
The task force dissolved without advancing any recommendations. Months later, Lane Shetterly, a former Republican state representative whose district included Falls City, introduced a bill at the request of the timber industry to phase out the severance tax.
The bill contained an increase in forestland property taxes that many believed would lessen the impact of the cut.
The Association of Oregon Counties supported it. The school lobby didn’t fight it. The governor signed it.
Revenue from severance tax payments to Oregon’s western counties has vanished
Shetterly, now president of the Oregon Environmental Council, one of the state’s top environmental groups, remembers almost nothing about the bill.
“Yeah, man that’s a long time ago,” Shetterly said in a phone interview.
Kitzhaber, who vetoed an earlier version before ultimately approving the measure, also doesn’t recall his support of the tax cut.
“I don’t question that I did,” Kitzhaber said, “but I can’t remember the context.”
Two decades later, Oregonians are still picking up the tab.
If Oregon hadn’t phased out its severance tax, timber production in 2018 would have generated an estimated $130 million.
The state would have received an estimated $59 million under California’s tax system and $91 million under Washington’s system, the investigation by OPB, The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica found.
Unlike Oregon, those states still tax large timber companies for the value of the trees they log.
Timber companies continue to pay state taxes that apply to all Oregon businesses, including income taxes and lowered property taxes, kept far below market value as an incentive for residents to own forestland.
The companies also pay a flat fee on the volume of logs they harvest. That fee, set in part by a board of timber company representatives, generates about $14 million annually. It funds state forestry agencies and university research instead of local governments.
Linc Cannon, former director of taxation for the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, defends the elimination of the severance tax.
In many cases, Cannon said, counties didn’t lose as much money because they simply shifted the tax burden to residents and small businesses.
Cannon said timber is a crop and should be treated like one. States that tax timber differently are simply wrong, he said.
“If you don’t believe timber is a crop, then you can tax it in other ways like Washington does,” Cannon said.
“This is exploitation”
A wisp of smoke from a burning pile of logging debris swirled into the fog drift above the jagged hills behind Falls City, home to some of the nation’s most productive timberlands.
At each bend in the rocky logging road, Jerry Franklin’s voice rose. Oregon has become a case study for what can happen when state leaders fail to regulate the logging style practiced by investment companies, said Franklin, who is one of the Pacific Northwest’s best-known forest scientists.
“This is not stewardship,” Franklin said, pointing to clear-cuts down to skinny stumps, sprayed over with herbicides, dessicated brown plants and streams without a single tree along the banks. “This is exploitation.”
Franklin doesn’t object to logging. He and Norm Johnson, another forest scientist with whom he works closely, have drawn the ire of environmental groups for supporting more logging on federal lands, including certain types of clear-cutting.
But this, Franklin said, is different.
Douglas fir trees, which can live for centuries, are cut after only about 40 years, resulting in lower-quality wood that is worth less. The shorter timetable forces cutting across more acres to produce the same volume, but fewer workers to log and process the wood.
At 83, Franklin is older than most of the Douglas firs now growing in Oregon.
“They’re wasting it,” Franklin said, his tone matching that of a Sunday preacher, as he looked at clear-cut Weyerhaeuser land. “The incredible capacity of these forests to produce incredible volumes of high-quality wood is wasted. It’s criminal.”
In reports to investors, Weyerhaeuser says the average age of a tree cut in the Pacific Northwest is 50, but the company expects a decrease. Some older trees have yet to be logged because of regulations that limit the percentage that can be cut annually, the company states in reports.
Weyerhaeuser representatives said the company’s conversion to a real estate investment trust didn’t change its management of forestlands.
“We have been practicing and continually improving on this system of sustainable forest management for generations, and we will continue to do so in Oregon — and on all our timberlands — for generations to come,” Wirsing said.
Oregon is suffering from the side effects of short-term logging practiced by companies that don’t plan to stay around long, said Steven Kadas, who until two years ago was chief forester for the smaller, locally owned company Thompson Timber.
When trees are cut down before reaching the peak of their ability to absorb carbon, it stunts one of the state’s biggest assets in combating climate change. The use of herbicide on clear-cuts and the lack of mature trees have deteriorated habitat for native songbirds on industrial private lands. Streams for salmon, for other fish and for drinking are drying up because young forests use more water and lose more of it to evaporation.
“You’re not going to see the results of what you do,” Kadas said. “You’re not going to have to live with those.”
A new economy behind locked gates
Falls City’s mayor stands in the empty lot that once housed the town’s mill, imagining a two-story brewpub, its rooftop seating filled with locals and tourists on a summer evening.
Just up the hill, brush and bramble have overtaken a rusted chain link fence. Dirty yellow paint peels off a “dead end” sign dangling upside down.
But Gordon envisions a waterfront park fit for Instagram, complete with a footbridge across the namesake falls on the Little Luckiamute River.
“Falls City — end of the road. Start of your adventure,” Gordon said. It’s a slogan the town adopted this year as a way to jump-start its economy.
The town is the gateway to the Valley of the Giants, a 51-acre federal forest preserve with an iconic grove of trees as big as redwoods, draped in soggy neon moss. On the way is the ghost town of Valsetz. Then, the scenic Oregon coast.
But the roads to those destinations are often behind locked gates during peak summer tourism months because of the timber companies that own them.
The companies restricting access say they are worried about vandalism and wildfires, but $250 a year can buy you a permit to camp or collect firewood on Weyerhaeuser lands. Hancock, the other major investment company that owns property near the town, opened part of its lands for recreational access during non-wildfire months after receiving $350,000 in grants from the state. Falls City leaders are seeking more grant funding to open up the road to the Valley of the Giants.
“I just don’t think that’s something that would sit well in the stomachs of most Oregonians,” Corthell, the city manager, said. “To know that there’s a town right here that’s suffering for lack of ability to support itself in many ways and that we have this giant asset right up the road that we can’t get to because the big corporations have control over it.”
A few times a year, Friedow, the local logger, acts as a guide for tours to the Valley of the Giants.
He stops at the concrete slabs that remain of Valsetz, telling stories of the now-defunct mill town. Then he begins the more than hourlong drive to the grove with trees older than the founding of the United States.
Friedow doesn’t get far out of town before hearing from shocked tourists.
“Forests provide excellent water supplies, the city has relied on that for almost a hundred years. All of the sudden we can’t drink the water, what is going on?” -Tina Schweickert, former Water Resources Coordinator, Salem Public WorksIn 2018 a toxic algae bloom spread out across Detroit Lake, the main source of drinking water for Salem Oregon. This was shortly after large swaths of forestland around the reservoir was clearcut. Tina says: “Without adequate protections for our forest waters, I’m concerned that salem residents are going to keep having to foot the bill for the dirty water that’s being delivered to our treatment plants. We all know we need timber, but we need to do it in a way where we are protecting our water supply”What do you think? Is toxifying drinking water for 170,000 people an okay price to pay for timber? Or does Oregon need stronger protections around water sources?
This video is about the toxic algae bloom that happened in Salem, OR after Stimson Lumber clearcut around Detroit lake.
“Forests provide excellent water supplies, the city has relied on that for almost a hundred years. All of the sudden we can’t drink the water, what is going on?” -Tina Schweickert, former Water Resources Coordinator, Salem Public Works
In 2018 a toxic algae bloom spread out across Detroit Lake, the main source of drinking water for Salem Oregon. This was shortly after large swaths of forestland around the reservoir was clearcut.
Tina says: “Without adequate protections for our forest waters, I’m concerned that salem residents are going to keep having to foot the bill for the dirty water that’s being delivered to our treatment plants. We all know we need timber, but we need to do it in a way where we are protecting our water supply”
What do you think? Is toxifying drinking water for 170,000 people an okay price to pay for timber? Or does Oregon need stronger protections around water sources?
In letter to Brown, timber and conservationists say they’re still ready to work together to end decades of fighting
Representatives of Oregon’s timber industry and the state’s major environmental groups say they’re still committed to working together despite the Legislature’s failure to pass a bill upon which their landmark deal hinged upon.
On Tuesday, March 31, Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement after receiving a letter signed by the parties of the original February deal which some in Salem characterized as “historic” in terms of ending decades of legal fights and political battles.
“Two short months ago, with the goal of creating a better future for Oregon, the state’s forest industry and major environmental groups were able to find common ground in a historic collaboration,” Brown said. “Since then, all of our daily lives have changed dramatically, as our state has been dealing with the spread of COVID-19. Right now, my top priority is the safety and health of Oregonians. I am doing everything in my power to slow the spread of the virus and protect our front-line workers to keep people safe.”
The path toward a deal started when timber interests reached out to Brown in January to see if she’d be willing to mediate several listening sessions where both sides would air their grievances. They ended up coming to an agreement that included dropping all prospective ballot measures and legal action relating to Oregon’s forests. The memorandum of understanding signed by several of Oregon’s largest timber companies and family woodland owners stated both sides would take part in the creation of a new habitat conservation plan that would rule over all Oregon’s forests, public and private. It also provided that the deal would be contingent upon the Legislature passing a bill to reform aerial spraying practices and create a cutting-edge notification system to allow neighbors to learn about spraying in real time.
The deal was seen by many as the first step in healing some of the old wounds that were left open from Oregon’s timber wars in the early 90s.
As the Republican walkout loomed in the final days of the 2020 Legislative Session, it seemed the aerial spraying bill was dead, effectively killing the deal too.
But on March 25, signatories of the agreement issued a letter to Brown reaffirming their commitment to work together and keep the deal alive.
“As key members of the negotiation that produced the MOU, we have consulted with our
stakeholders and heard a clear commitment to the MOU’s goals for new pesticide rules,
spray notification, and for broader mediation to address forest practice reforms,” the letter said. “But the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic has understandably overtaken our collective
ability to carry this work forward in the immediate term.”
The letter went on to say that all parties would continue to assist in the effort to withdraw ballot initiatives from the elections process, a key piece of the deal which was unclear how it would be affected by the failed legislative session.
Brown said in her statement Tuesday that she’s also committed now more than ever to continue the work started in February, but only after concerns around the ongoing outbreak of novel coronavirus begin to calm.
“I am pleased to have the partnership of industry and advocates to achieve the original goals of the memorandum of understanding, including legislation, as soon as circumstances allow for this very important work to resume,” Brown said. “I, too, remain committed to our collective goals and to the long-term health of our state. Oregonians want healthy forests and fish, a vibrant forest sector, and prosperous rural communities, and I appreciate the continued collaboration to make this happen.”
The letter sent to Brown from the parties of the original deal was signed by the two spokesmen from either side: Bob Van Dyk of the Wild Salmon Center; and Greg Miller representing the forest industry.
Here’s a full list of signatories on the agreement:
Timber and environmental groups reinforce their commitment to February pact brokered by Governor Brown
Salem, OR—Governor Kate Brown today issued the following statement on receiving a reaffirmation of commitment from forest industry and environmental groups to work together on a science-informed policy development process related to forest practice laws and regulations.
In February, the signatories to the original memorandum of understanding agreed to drive a process to update the state’s timber practices balancing habitat and working in the woods, with the mutual goals of meeting the standards of endorsement from federal wildlife agencies; passing legislation on aerial spraying of pesticides to enhance spray buffer zones and notification practices; expanding stream buffers for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout streams; and sustaining Oregon’s critical forest products industries. Both sides agreed to drop all forestry-related initiative petitions and related litigation after passage of updated legislation addressing the areas of contention.
“Two short months ago, with the goal of creating a better future for Oregon, the state’s forest industry and major environmental groups were able to find common ground in a historic collaboration,” said Governor Brown. “Since then, all of our daily lives have changed dramatically, as our state has been dealing with the spread of COVID-19. Right now, my top priority is the safety and health of Oregonians. I am doing everything in my power to slow the spread of the virus and protect our front-line workers to keep people safe.
“Now we’re going to need to work together more than ever. I am pleased to have the partnership of industry and advocates to achieve the original goals of the memorandum of understanding, including legislation, as soon as circumstances allow for this very important work to resume.
“I, too, remain committed to our collective goals and to the long-term health of our state. Oregonians want healthy forests and fish, a vibrant forest sector, and prosperous rural communities, and I appreciate the continued collaboration to make this happen.”
Conservation and fishing groups will continue to work with private forest landowners on voluntary compliance with revised spray and logging buffers if legislation is not achieved by 2021. OSPC is confident that this agreement has brought Oregon closer than it has ever been to long overdue changes to Oregon’s water protection policies on private forestlands. These groups sent the following letter to the Governor on March 25, 2020:
March 25, 2020
Dear Governor Brown,
With solace during this troubled time, we write to you regarding the Memorandum of Understanding on forest management that your team facilitated.
We appreciate the recent effort your staff made to keep the momentum behind this historic agreement following the short session.
As key members of the negotiation that produced the MOU, we have consulted with our stakeholders and heard a clear commitment to the MOU’s goals for new pesticide rules, spray notification, and for broader mediation to address forest practice reforms.
But the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic has understandably overtaken our collective ability to carry this work forward in the immediate term.
The MOU envisions coordinated actions by signatories, the Governor’s office, the Board
of Forestry, and – importantly – the Legislature. We remain very committed to meeting the terms of the MOU, including legislation, at the nearest possible time that circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic allow.
Given our mutual commitment to the key elements of the MOU, and also recognizing the priorities of Oregon at this time, we will make efforts to assist the respective petitioners with the formal withdrawal of the competing ballot measures.
We wish you good health and good luck in the days ahead.
For Forest Industry Signatories
Bob Van Dyk
For Fish and Conservation Signatories
Campbell Global Greenwood Resources Hampton Lumber Hancock NR Group Lone Rock Resources Oregon Small Woodlands Assn. Pope Resources Port Blakely Roseburg Forest Products Seneca Sawmill Co. Starker Forests Stimson Lumber Weyerhaeuser
Audubon Society of Portland Beyond Toxics Cascadia Wildlands Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center Northwest Guides and Anglers Assn. Oregon League of Conservation Voters Oregon Stream Protection Coalition Oregon Wild Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations Rogue Riverkeeper Trout Unlimited Umpqua Watersheds Wild Salmon Center
Today, Governor Kate Brown announced a new path of cooperation between the timber industry and conservation groups including Wild Salmon Center. A Memorandum of Understanding between a dozen Oregon timber companies and an equal number of conservation groups includes new rules on aerial pesticide spraying, new protections for streams in the Rogue-Siskiyou region of Southwest Oregon, and a new framework for developing comprehensive protections for salmon and other endangered species that depend on clean, cold water throughout the state.
Wild Salmon Center has been working for more than 20 years to update forest policies across the state, to ensure salmon have clean, cold water and adequate habitat for spawning and rearing. Now, WSC has signed on to this agreement, in the belief that it provides a potentially better pathway for protecting Oregon’s salmon and steelhead runs and adapting to a changing climate. (Here’s a a primer on the pact, with highlights and further context.)
After today’s agreement, the Oregon Legislature will take up a package that includes new provisions on aerial pesticide spray, Rogue-Siskiyou stream rules, and support for a comprehensive habitat protection plan.
Wild Salmon Center’s Bob Van Dyk, who has worked on Oregon forest policy for two decades, said this today at the Capitol:
“It’s a great privilege to be here today as a party to this announcement.
Almost twenty years ago, Oregon’s forest laws diverged from our neighbors in Washington State. Washington State worked through a difficult but collaborative process to reform their forest laws.The process resulted in major changes to better conserve wild salmon and clean water, while giving the timber industry more regulatory certainty.
In Oregon we never developed that critical mass for compromise. Instead, we argued in front of the Board of Forestry. We filed lawsuits. We fought over legislation. Wild Salmon Center and the many signers of the MOU today have been at the heart of these 20 years of struggle. The result has been a lack of trust, gridlock on forest policy, and growing citizen demand for better forest rules to protect people, clean water, and fish and wildlife.
Today we are starting a new approach. The MOU signed today, and the companion legislation on aerial spray of pesticides, are taking a similar path to that in Washington State. It is a path of collaboration toward the stronger conservation measures our groups seek, and toward the certainty the forest industry needs.
For many of the people and organizations in the conservation community who signed this MOU, this new approach is unfamiliar and unsettling. Pursue legislation in partnership with the industry? Should we do that? It is a good question. As Mark Twain wrote, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” On reflection, we have decided it is worth trying something new.
I want to acknowledge that this isn’t easy for anyone. The immediate reforms announced today on aerial spray, together with the improvements to rules protecting the Rogue region, are a real and meaningful step by the forest products industry in a new direction. And then on to more difficult steps, working toward a Habitat Conservation Plan for Oregon’s forests.
Of course the prospects for this effort are uncertain, as are most ambitious undertakings. But our agreement today is the right start.
I want to end by thanking the Governor and her team for helping to convene this conversation, and for the support she has expressed for the result. It truly would not have happened without her.”
Wild Salmon Center President and CEO Guido Rahr, who has also been working to reform Oregon forest policy for two decades, had these comments:
“Two of Oregon’s greatest treasures are its wild fish and wild rivers, and Western Oregon rivers hold the greatest concentrations of healthy wild salmon and steelhead stocks remaining south of Canada. Science clearly tells us that we need to modernize our forest practices in Oregon, to properly protect these rivers and streams and the wild fish that call them home.
We’ve spent many years fighting about salmon and clean water. But today we’re demonstrating shared values around protecting the things that make Oregon awesome. Today, we are plotting a new cooperative path to update timber practices and protect salmon. We firmly believe we can get better results this way. I want to applaud this new spirit of collaboration. I want to thank the Governor for stewarding this agreement. I want to also acknowledge the long, hard work of our staff, particularly Bob Van Dyk, to bring about this agreement. And we need to thank the citizens and communities throughout Oregon that have spoken up in favor of new protections.
There’s still much work to be done to secure needed habitat protection for salmon. But after today’s announcement I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to complete that journey together.”
Timber companies and conservation groups have agreed to stand down from their divisive and potentially expensive ballot measure fight over Oregon’s logging rules, striking a compromise that sets the stage for the biggest changes to Oregon’s logging practices in decades.
The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, calls for state lawmakers to immediately pass tighter restrictions on aerial herbicide spraying, which legislators punted in 2015. The new restrictions would quintuple the size of no-spray buffers around homes and schools, widen them around streams and require logging companies to provide one-day notice to neighbors before helicopters start spraying.
If that passes, both the timber companies and environmental groups agreed to halt efforts to push dueling ballot measures in November.
“I would describe this as historic, unprecedented and extraordinary,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who helped broker the deal, told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “The commitment is very clear and the agreement frankly brings both sides together. This is a paradigm shift.”
Thirteen timber companies and 13 environmental groups signed the compromise, which calls for a groundbreaking negotiation that could remake forestry on private land in Oregon. Over the next 18 months, timber companies and green groups would work in mediated meetings toward developing a conservation blueprint to ensure logging practices on private industrial timberlands allow salmon and other species to come back from the brink of extinction.
That would give logging companies protection from litigation if their actions harm an endangered species in exchange for solid conservation commitments.
The negotiations, governed by a long list of ground rules, would aim to develop new rules for the 2022 legislative session and begin the process of seeking needed federal approval.
Brown said she expected the process to result in “a significant rewrite” of the Oregon Forest Practices Act, the state’s logging rules. She said she was confident the aerial spraying legislation would pass during the Legislature’s month-long short session and pledged her commitment to shepherding the longer-term deal to fruition.
“No one thought this could be done,” Brown said. “And we are making it happen because people are tired of the endless wars at the ballot and in the courtroom.”
There is no guarantee the legislation will pass or the talks will succeed. But the agreement is a step toward resolving the conflicts over logging rules that have played out at the Board of Forestry, the Legislature and in courts for decades and soon on the November ballot. Signatories included timber companies like Weyerhaeuser, Hampton Lumber and Roseburg Forest Products, and environmental groups including Oregon Wild, the Wild Salmon Center and Beyond Toxics.
While Oregon in 1971 became the first state in the nation to adopt comprehensive logging rules, the state has since fallen far behind its neighbors. Today, the state’s logging rules are the West Coast’s weakest, allowing timber companies to cut more aggressively than in California and Washington.
Frustrated by legislative inaction in a state where timber gives more to lawmakers than anywhere else, environmental groups led by Oregon Wild pushed three ballot initiatives this year to tighten aerial herbicide spraying rules, increase forest stream buffers, prohibit logging in steep landslide-prone areas and prohibit conflicts of interest for state forestry board appointees.
Timber companies quickly punched back. The Oregon Forest & Industries Council proposed initiatives that would have expanded industry control over the state’s forest regulator, the Oregon Department of Forestry, while amending the state constitution to require compensation for any landowner financially affected by any land-use change. The constitutional change held the power to remake Oregon’s land-use system.
But both sides blinked. Timber companies approached Brown’s office to negotiate a compromise. The hastily negotiated deal announced Monday offers more certainty for both the timber industry and environmental community than leaving their differences to be decided by voters. It still leaves an uncertain path toward the larger deal, one that will require people who are deeply distrustful of each other to negotiate in good faith.
Greg Miller, a retired Weyerhaeuser executive speaking on behalf of the timber companies, said the deal signaled “a new era of cooperation and transparency” while calling for forest policy to “continue to rely on the best available science.”
“We are hopeful that we have found a pathway forward that meets those expectations and sets Oregon up for the most comprehensive, forward-thinking forest policy in the nation,” Miller said in a statement.
Environmental groups also lauded the deal. Bob Van Dyk, Oregon policy director at the Wild Salmon Center, called it “a critical step toward modernizing Oregon’s forest rules.”
“It’s our collective duty to make sure that a healthy timber industry doesn’t come at the expense of fish, wildlife, and public health,” Van Dyk said.
The changes to aerial spraying are a significant initial concession from the timber industry, which helped kill a similar proposal in 2015. Companies use helicopter sprays to help kill the plants that compete for sunlight with seedlings replanted after clearcuts. More than 800,000 pounds of herbicides were sprayed on forestland in 2008, the last year Oregon required amounts to be reported.
The practice comes with risks. Aerial spraying can allow toxic chemicals like glyphosate, 2,4-D and atrazine to drift long distances or get into waterways that serve as drinking water sources. Twenty Curry County residents complained of illnesses in 2013 after a helicopter pilot flew over their neighborhood while spraying herbicides on clear cuts, misting homes in his path.
Oregon’s timber industry has long known it was vulnerable if aerial spraying restrictions went to the ballot. Voters in Lincoln County approved an aerial spray ban in 2017, despite being outspent 20-to-one. (The ban was subsequently overturned in court.)
The industry polled 500 likely voters in the other coastal counties in 2018 and found them “very susceptible” to the idea of banning aerial pesticide spraying — despite the voters’ widespread support of logging.
A two-page memo obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting, summarizing an internal May 2018 poll, shows that polling found voters with family members employed in the timber industry opposed helicopter spraying at the same rate as voters overall.
Even when given context about why the chemicals were used, the polling showed, between 55 and 57 percent of likely voters still thought it put the environment at risk and spread harmful chemicals through the air and water, compared to about 33 percent who thought it was good, necessary to help young trees grow.
While coastal communities are more conservative than the rest of Oregon, the poll noted, those voters chose protecting the environment over creating local jobs.
One of the ballot measures backed by the environmental groups would have established a 500-foot aerial spraying buffer on all waters in the state. Timber companies worried that would be an effective ban on all aerial spraying in many areas. The legislation doesn’t go that far. But it does increase setbacks for sprays near homes and schools to 300 feet (from 60), establishes stricter setbacks on drinking water intakes and boosts the minimum buffer on streams with fish from 60 feet to 75.
It would also establish 50-foot aerial spraying buffers on all headwater streams — waterways that don’t have fish but that feed into streams and rivers that do. Those headwater streams comprise a majority of Oregon’s stream network. No buffers exist for them currently.
By Guest Columnist Peter Hayes Jan. 8, 2020 Oregonlive
Hayes and his family own and care for Hyla Woods in the Oregon Coast Range. Hayes served on the Oregon Board of Forestry from 2007 to 2011.
For how many decades have Oregonians opened the newspaper and read of our fellow citizens in conflict over forest-related issues? Debate over our proper relationships to forests is not only inevitable but also healthy, when handled well. But the nature, form and tenor of these tensions and conflicts have changed.
These conflicts – whether it is the future of the Elliott State Forest, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s challenges, state forest litigation, implications of pending climate legislation – are more numerous and paralyzing than ever before. They involve increasingly complex considerations, including the role of climate, water and wildlife. And when we most need to count on democratic processes and functional government to help us resolve these issues, our state and federal governments seem incapable of doing what we rely on them to do – develop common ground on which solutions can be built. So we find ourselves fighting our battles through litigation, initiatives and protests and making it nearly impossible for the Department of Forestry to function.
As a multigenerational forest and sawmill owner I see that these problems demand that we work together. We can and must take action to create a better path, with six principles to guide us:
It is time to acknowledge that the forest-related conflicts listed above are symptoms of a culture wrestling with a pair of fundamental questions – “What is a forest for?” and “How will we build enough common ground to allow us to move beyond this dangerously divided situation?” Whether it is in the board room, court room, voting booth, protest barricade or the cab of a log truck circling the Capitol honking in protest, the underlying questions are the same.
Oregonians must become better informed, more engaged with, and more vocal about our forests and their future. To do this we must dig beneath the deliberately deceptive illusions propagated by vested interests, to better understand the circumstance, issues and choices.
We must accept that responsible forest stewardship, public and private, depends on us shifting from seeing and treating forests as commodities belonging to us to seeing them as communities within which we, as members, have responsibilities.
It is time for us to tell elected and appointed officials that we expect them to become knowledgeable about and take effective leadership on forest issues. As a former member of the Board of Forestry, I see that government will only fairly lead on forest issues once the corrupting power of corporate campaign donations have been removed.
We must join in imagining and creating better approaches to forestry that are climate smart, water wise, fire adapted and that support the vitality of rural communities through a reliable forest economy. Many of us have worked for decades to test and show what forests can be for by moving beyond timber-centric models to create economically viable, multi-value forests. We have many structures, including watershed councils and forest collaboratives, that demonstrate our ability to build powerful bridges to heal this divided world; we can and must make better use of them.
And finally, we must acknowledge that forests have been, are, and will always be central to the heart, soul, and character of this state and its citizens. Responsible, innovative forest stewardship must be a cornerstone of our vision of our shared future. As Northwesterners step up to meet the interwoven challenges of climate, water, and too little rural opportunity, we should better harness our most unique superpower – our forests’ underutilized potential to help meet these challenges.
When we care for Oregon forests with respect and a long-term vision, we know that they will sustain us. At the same time that we, as a species, are at a critical decision point in relation to the earth’s climate, Oregonians face the choice of whether we will rise above our differences to build the common ground needed to live compatibly with forests and one another in the long run.
Amanda Astor ends her recent column with “Better understanding of forests and the science behind decision making can bring our community closer and tear down divisions and alarmist narratives.”
Apparently she believes that scientists’ and community members’ concerns about the impacts of industrial logging are alarmist and have no basis in fact. Astor would have us all simply accept timber companies public relations and we should all get along just fine living with high-impact clearcutting, aerial herbicide spraying, moncrop plantations and the decimation of forest and aquatic ecosystems.
So, let’s be clear about what seems to be the cause of division in the communities.
Astor correctly points out that there are many approaches to forest management used by private forestland owners. It is the management model used by large corporate landowners and timber investment management organizations, often Wall Street-based, which place value on the highest financial return for stockholders.
This management model depends on the conversion of older, healthy biodiverse and resilient forests into monocrop Douglas fir plantations that cover vast expanses of the landscape. It is the impacts — including herbicide drift onto neighboring properties and water systems, steep slope landslides, runoff sediments clogging salmon spawning streams— that create tension, division and Astor’s “alarmist narratives.”
Plantations are not “ forests.” Forests are composed of interacting communities of plants and animals that develop over long periods of time. A plantation is no more a “forest” than a 100-acre corn crop is a meadow or prairie. The complex processes that drive the development of healthy forests are increasingly well understood by researchers at Oregon State University’s Forest Ecosystems and Society program.
Astor perpetuates the industry myth that clearcutting, burning off all residual woody material, several years of herbicide spraying and the planting of Douglas fir seedlings genetically selected for fast growth eight feet apart, somehow mimics natural disturbances such as fire or insect infestations. Scientific research has not supported this industrial narrative myth.
Any industry that has shareholder profits as its primary objective needs to convince the public that there are no environmental or human health impacts from their management, The tobacco industry put profits before truth for decades. The mining companies in Appalachia claimed to put worker safety before profits. The gasoline industry claimed that adding lead was necessary.
The timber industry has a narrative that serves their interests including softening words like “clearcutting” to “regeneration harvests” or “overstory removal” and overusing the word “sustainable” to suggest maintaining healthy forests instead of planting seedlings to replace trees to sustain timber volume into the future.
If Astor and other industry foresters would like to educate us in the “science of decision making,” we might come to understand why clearcutting cycles are shortening to 30 years and why it is necessary to apply fertilizer to depleted soils and why the cost and impacts of aerial herbicide spraying is economically worth the risks to human health, water quality and wildlife.
The narrative that industry lobbying groups have painted is a picture of clean water, abundant wildlife and “forests” forever, the “everything-is-just-great-folks” narrative.
While we may enjoy relatively cheap lumber prices in the short run, the industry model of high-impact logging passes along the costs of the impacts to all Oregonians.
Yes, the companies follow state laws, but with the help of a powerful lobby in Salem and a Board of Forestry dominated by industry interests, the Forest Practices Act has held off meaningful changes since 1972.
The “alarmists” and “divisions” Astor refers to are based on decades of communities directly experiencing the results of industrial forestry. Communities like Gold Beach where dozens of lives were irreversibly impacted by forestry herbicides and Rockaway Beach where municipal water now has cancer-causing chemicals, have every right to feel the divisions and expect something better from their industrial neighbors.
David Eisler, Ph.D, is a retired anthropologist. He has actively managed forest land in the Coast Range for 40 years. He was a founding board member of the Siuslaw Watershed Council and was a founding member of the Siuslaw National Forest’s collaborative Stewardship Group.