Pesticides used on forests and in other applications have been found by researchers in watersheds along the Oregon Coast, raising concerns that aquatic species may be exposed to a toxic mixture of chemicals in the region.
Researchers from Portland State University found traces of a dozen unique pesticides — a combination of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides — in water samples and bivalves collected in downstream rivers and estuaries. The study finds that the mixing of these compounds once they enter aquatic ecosystems could have a negative impact on shellfish and other creatures living downstream — including harm to their hormonal processes and their reproduction and development. The paper, which was published in the journal, Toxics, also concluded that more research is needed to learn the extent at which these environmental impacts occur.
Currently, federal regulations for pesticide use are labeled on their containers. Each pesticide has its own limit for use, as well as restrictions and limits on applying near bodies of water. State agencies overseeing agriculture and forest practices also regulate each pesticide used. For many individual pesticides, the state has adopted rules that exceed the label requirements. But regulations do not consider the effects of multiple chemicals that intermingle in the environment — an issue that raises concerns for the paper’s authors.
For the study, researchers took water samples as well as tissue samples from Western pearlshell mussels, softshell clams and Pacific oysters. Bivalves like these are filter feeders so contamination in the water enters their tissue.
Researchers compared samples from eight Coast Range watersheds to what they found in “upstream management practices related to forestry and herbicide use,” said co-author Kaegan Scully-Engelmeyer. The team used the Oregon Department of Forestry’s notification system to help them better pinpoint what pesticides to test for.
Additional water sampling over a long period of time captures “the types of exposure that originate from pesticide used in a lot of these forestry scenarios,” said Scully-Engelmeyer, a graduate research assistant at PSU.
The team of researchers found at least one pesticide in 38% of the bivalve samples they took. The detected chemicals were present at a range of different levels in the 77 tissue samples from mussels, clams and oysters. The most contaminated organisms were collected in the Siuslaw and Smith watersheds. Some of the chemicals detected also included previously used and now banned pesticides, including DDT.
“DDT and its degradation products are known for their persistence and slow break-down in the environment,” Scully-Engelmeyer said. “It is not surprising that there are trace levels of contamination in some watersheds.”
He also said the longevity of each pesticide depends on their chemical makeup and the environment in which it was applied. Some pesticides break down more quickly than others.
One of the herbicides detected in the study, indaziflam, was found in 7% of bivalve samples.
Indaziflam, sold under the trade names Alion, Specticle and Esplanade, is widely used to kill weeds in orchards, Christmas tree farms, forests, nurseries, landscaping, lawns and grassy fields at parks and schools.
Although the focus for the study was on forest management practices, co-author Elise Granek stressed in an interview that these types of chemical contaminations are also linked to separate sources.
“These animals are being exposed to not just pesticides and herbicides from forestry but also from other sources. So pharmaceuticals, microplastics from waste water, treatment plant effluent and from septic release,” she said.
Granek, a professor of environmental science and management at PSU, said since there are no regulations that consider stressor effects of multiple compounds once they are mixed, it’s hard to know what amounts are safe for animals and people to be exposed to in these scenarios. Granek hopes the study will help agencies rethink the strategy of only having single contaminant benchmarks.
Oregon Department of Agriculture Pesticide Stewardship Specialist Kirk Cook said research regarding the effects of these kinds of stressors on organisms is ongoing and various scientists have begun to look into multiple chemical effects on endangered species like salmon.
In Oregon, commercial forests are treated with pesticides to prevent vegetation from competing with fir trees that are being grown so they can eventually be logged and milled into lumber.
In an email, Oregon Department of Forestry Public Affairs Specialist Nick Hennemann said the study shows that more research is needed but it can help inform policymakers’ decisions around water quality protections.
Hennemann said in an email that a water quality pesticides team made up of representatives from several state agencies and Oregon State University “generally agrees with the report’s conclusions, including the fact that additional information is needed to fill ‘gaps’ in our current knowledge regarding pesticide use.”
A timber industry lobbyist strongly disputed the study’s linking of pesticides to forest practices, contending that most of the report’s detected pesticides aren’t used on forests.
“While the authors assert this study has implications for forestry practices, the results don’t say that at all,” said Sara Duncan, the director of communications for the Oregon Forest & Industries Council. She cited a 2020 report by the DEQ that found Oregon forest lands have the highest percentage of “excellent and good” water quality sampling sites, while the highest percentage of “fair to very poor” status sites were urban and agricultural.
“We continue to be confident that our practices robustly protect streams for drinking water and fish habitat,” Duncan said.
Scully-Engelmeyer said the research reaches no conclusions about the degree to which the detected pesticides may be harming shellfish or other life. But he said it’s important to begin to document the mixing of pesticides, which can help scientists better understand the environmental impacts.
“We’re currently in the middle of a lab experiment looking at the mixtures we’ve detected on the effects of softshell clams in a controlled tank experiment,” he said.
Oregon State University Assistant Professor Susanne Brander was not part of the study. As an ecotoxicologist, she is an expert in the kind of research involved. Brander said the study appears to be based on sound research. She said the findings underscore the challenges that regulators and scientists face in keeping up with the environmental impact of chemicals — hundreds of which are approved for use every year.
Read Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s February 3 Press Release regarding “the first in a series of negotiation sessions this month as part of a groundbreaking agreement between forestry representatives, conservation leaders, and fishing organizations that aims to propose new protections for sensitive aquatic species on over 10 million acres of private forestland in Oregon.”
Private Forest Accord working group hires Peter Koehler to mediate discussions
Salem, OR—Despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating wildfire season, the collaborative process between 12 timber and forest products companies, the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, and 13 environmental and fisheries organizations to amend Oregon forest practices is moving forward. That process was established by the historic Memorandum of Understanding brokered by Governor Kate Brown in February. Today, Governor Brown announced that the signatories to the agreement have taken a major step forward this month by appointing experienced mediator Peter Koehler, Jr., to facilitate the dialogue, expected to begin in early 2021.
“I’d like to thank both sides for their continued commitment to the process we established in February: to create a future for Oregon with healthy forests, abundant salmon, trout, and wildlife, and a flourishing forestry industry––all made possible by sound science,” said Governor Brown. “Protecting Oregon’s environment and fostering economic growth for our rural communities are not mutually exclusive goals, but it will take both sides setting aside their past differences.
“I especially applaud both sides for their commitment to this historic process during a time when they face the twin challenges of the aftermath of a devastating fire season, and a pandemic which precludes the possibility for in-person, face-to-face negotiations. Peter Koehler is a mediator with the temperament and the experience to continue moving these negotiations forward under these unprecedented circumstances.”
Over the next 18 months, Koehler will oversee a collaborative and science-based effort to reach agreement on proposed modifications to Oregon’s forest practice laws in a manner that could achieve the highest level of conservation and regulatory certainty from federal fish and wildlife agencies while ensuring that working forests thrive. Such a plan would provide long-term conservation benefits to designated wildlife species, including the iconic Oregon salmon, while also providing operational flexibility and regulatory assurance to forest landowners.
As principal of Koehler ADR, LLC, Koehler brings both business and environmental perspectives to mediation. Koehler was selected for his extensive experience with arbitration, mediation, and litigation in complex legal matters, as well as for his impartiality in matters of forest management and natural resources. Koehler worked as a commercial litigator and trial lawyer for 20 years, including 15 years with Tonkon Torp, LLP, where he also served as Managing Partner. He then worked for 12 years as in-house counsel for Nike, first as U.S. General Counsel, and then as Vice President responsible for managing the global legal team. Koehler also serves on the board of the Oregon Environmental Council and, since his retirement from Nike, has mediated or arbitrated a broad range of cases. Koehler is a graduate of Stanford University and the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley.
“We’re extremely pleased to start this process in the good hands of Peter, who we all agree is a qualified and competent mediator supported by all parties,” said David Bechtold, representative of the coalition of forest companies. “2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, but we’re looking forward to a new era and new opportunities in 2021. We remain committed to collaborating in good faith to produce the best outcomes for Oregon’s forests and the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who depend on them.”
“This is an exciting and significant step forward, as we work together toward the common goal of modernizing Oregon’s forest policies,” said Bob Van Dyk, Oregon policy director at the Wild Salmon Center. “With the selection of Peter as our mediator, Oregonians can rest assured that we are committed to a collaborative process that ensures our forests, world-class salmon runs, and clean drinking water can be enjoyed for generations to come.”
Today’s announcement builds on the successful collaboration between the two sides in fostering new forestry policy to date, including:
• Passage of landmark legislation in the June special legislative session that increased drinking water protections with larger buffers around homes, schools, and water intakes for helicopter applications of pesticides on forestland. Senate Bill 1602 also created a state-of-the-art electronic notification system for real-time neighbor communications and timely post-application record availability for helicopter applications of pesticides on forestland.
• Expansion of harvest buffers around streams for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout in the Siskiyou geo-region, bringing buffers developed by forestry professionals and environmental leaders for that geo-region in line with the rest of Western Oregon, whose buffers were already expanded in July 2017.
• Abandoning forestry-related initiative petitions and related litigation in February that avoided a costly ballot measure fight, the outcomes of which would not have resulted in stability or adequate long-term conservation benefits for environmental or forest products interests.
In addition to undertaking administrative tasks and scheduling the first round of meetings, which are expected to get started in earnest after the first of the year, the Private Forest Accord working group will provide an update to the Legislature on the progress of the process before the 2021 legislative session adjourns.
Greg Wagenblast, Hearings Officer
Private Forest Siskiyou SSBT Rulemaking
Oregon Department of Forestry
2600 State Street
Salem, OR 97310
Re: Public Comment on Proposed Amendment to OAR Chapter 629: Expanding water rules on small and medium salmon, steelhead, and bull trout Siskiyou Georegion streams
Dear Mr. Wagenblast:
I am the coordinator of the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition (OSPC), an ad hoc coalition of 26 non-profit organizations in Oregon and Washington united around the promotion of increased protection for freshwater aquatic ecosystems on nonfederal lands in Oregon. Thank you for the opportunity to provide public comment on the proposed rulemaking to apply the Salmon, Steelhead,
and Bull Trout (“SSBT”) stream buffer standards to the Siskiyou Georegion.
As a signatory of the Memorandum of Agreement implemented by SB 1602, I support the proposed rule change as part of a larger policy change package that includes future collaboration with private forest landowning entities to develop the framework for a statewide forest practices aquatic habitat conservation plan. Incorporation of the SBBT rule expansion to the Siskiyou into legislation helped expedite and streamline what could have been a lengthy and contentious rulemaking. This action effectively reverses a 2015 Board of Forestry decision to exclude small and medium streams that support salmon and steelhead in the Siskiyou region from stream protection requirements that became effective in July 2017 for the balance of western Oregon. OSPC has consistently advocated for inclusion of the Siskiyou in the SSBT rule since 2015. This rule change represents a modest improvement that brings stream buffer standards in the Siskiyou up to the same level as the rest of western Oregon.
I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that in adopting this rule the Board was not required to make a specific finding about the adequacy of either the existing or proposed rules to meet water
quality standards under the Clean Water Act or restoration targets under any of the six applicable Total Maximum Daily Load plans (TMDLs) for impaired water bodies in the Siskiyou region. Nor
did the Legislature or the Environmental Quality Commission make such findings.
Likewise, this rulemaking is not accompanied by analysis that indicates it renders the Oregon Forest Practices rules to be an adequate foundation for the federally approvable Endangered Species Act habitat conservation plan aspired to by the parties to the MOU implemented by SB1602. As noted in the comments dated September 18, 2020 already submitted into this proceeding by Rogue Riverkeeper and Wild Salmon Center, which we endorse, additional protection of the small and medium fish-bearing streams covered by this rule will be an important consideration in planned
future collaborative policy discussions.
Therefore, we are submitting for this record as separate electronic files:
1. Comments submitted by OSPC to ODF on the original SSBT rule change
These comments argued that none of the four buffer designs provided under the western Oregon SSBT rule (no cut, partial cut, North-South or equity relief) are adequate to meet the Protecting
Coldwater Criterion or the watershed-specific targets established by applicable temperature TMDLs. OSPC continues to find that available information supports the contention that larger buffers applied to more of the stream network are needed to achieve compliance with the Protecting ColdwaterStandard and applicable TMDL/Human Use Allowance requirements.
2. The final ODF report entitled “Siskiyou Streamside Protections Review: Summary of Literature Review” by Adam Coble, W. Terry Frueh, John Hawksworth and Ariel Cowan
This report, provided in its final form to the Board of Forestry as an informational item at its September 6, 2020 meeting, generally informs policy considerations regarding attainment of DEQ
water quality standards for temperature for small and medium fish-bearing streams in the Siskiyou geographic region.
This document includes a summary of available information relevant to the Siskiyou region about the adequacy of current forest practices water protection rules to meet stream temperature goals and relationships between riparian buffer width and basal area and prevention of stream temperature increases due to shade reduction.
A primary finding is that: “[r]elevant literature (12 studies)
suggests implementation of current FPA rules will not ensure maintenance of Protecting Cold Water standard or the Human Use Allowance.” Siskiyou Review at iv. The review is notable for its
discussion of the policy implications of applicable TMDLs for forest practices and for its evaluation of how these analyses may inform our understanding of riparian buffer design as it relates to effective stream shading.
Mary Scurlock, Coordinator
Oregon Stream Protection Coalition
Internal emails show a tax-funded agency created to educate people about forestry has acted as a public-relations agency and lobbying arm for Oregon’s timber industry, in some cases skirting legal constraints that forbid it from doing so.
by Rob Davis, the Oregonian and Tony Schick, OPB
Published in ProPublica
As Oregon Gov. Kate Brown crafted a bill in 2018 to enact sweeping limits on greenhouse gas emissions, leaders at an obscure state agency worked behind the scenes to discredit research they feared would persuade her to target one of the state’s most powerful industries.
The research, published that March, calculated for the first time how much carbon was lost to the atmosphere as a result of cutting trees in Oregon. It concluded that logging, once thought to have no negative effect on global warming, was among the state’s biggest climate polluters.
Researchers led by Oregon State University forest ecologist Beverly Law found that the state could dramatically shrink its carbon footprint if trees on private land were cut less frequently, a recommendation that pushed against the approach of Wall Street real estate trusts and investment funds that cut trees at a younger age to maximize profits.
The findings alarmed forest industry leaders in Oregon, who quickly assembled scientists and lobbyists to challenge the study and its authors. Among the groups leading the fight was the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, a quasi-governmental state agency funded with tax dollars that is, by law, restricted from influencing or attempting to influence policy.
Leaders at the institute worked behind the scenes for months to persuade lawmakers and the dean of Oregon State’s College of Forestry that the research was flawed, informing timber lobbyists of their efforts along the way, according to an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive, OPB and ProPublica.
The institute needs to “develop a swift, fairly immediate, response so that this study doesn’t drive all of the initial narrative and so that it doesn’t drive early attempts at the state level to develop carbon policy based on what appears to me to be faulty science,” Timm Locke, the agency’s forest products director at the time, wrote in a May 2018 email with the subject line “Bev Law carbon BS.” “One reason I feel this way is that the Governor’s office is noticing.”
Then, Locke, a public employee, offered to help a timber lobbyist draft a counterargument “those of us in the industry can use.”
The email is one of thousands obtained as part of an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive, OPB and ProPublica, which found that the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, created in the early 1990s to educate residents about forestry, has acted as a public-relations agency and lobbying arm for the timber industry, in some cases skirting legal constraints that forbid it from doing so.
Oregon’s biggest forest owners have eliminated thousands of jobs, shrinking their contribution to the state’s economy while receiving an estimated $3 billion in tax cuts since 1991, a June story that is part of the yearlong investigation by OPB, The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica revealed. The timber industry has maintained outsized influence in the state, thwarting attempts to restrict logging with the help of a decadeslong public opinion campaign. And through the institute, the timber industry executed that campaign from behind the veneer of the state government.
The tax-funded institute spends $1 million annually on advertising that for years promoted Oregon’s logging laws as strong, even as many became weaker than in neighboring states, a review by the news organizations found. It worked to undercut university research, challenging the validity of studies and the credibility of professors. Its executive directors sat through private industry deliberations about dark money attack ads that opposed Brown’s 2018 reelection. And, in 2019, its board discussed rushing a report in an attempt to stop ballot measures that targeted logging, the news organizations found.
Erin Isselmann, the institute’s executive director since July 2018, defended the agency. Isselmann said she has operated “under the highest ethical standards.” After the news organizations obtained the emails, Isselmann told board members she had solicited an opinion from the Oregon Department of Justice about the institute’s legal constraints. She declined to make it public, citing attorney-client privilege.
Locke said in an interview that the line between lobbying and educating at the institute was unclear. He said his pushback against Law’s study wasn’t an attempt to sway Brown’s carbon policy, “so much as to ensure that the policy was based on sound information.”
Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, called the news organizations’ findings “deeply troubling.” He said they merited “at the very least an investigation by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission or the secretary of state’s office, and perhaps an audit to bring more facts to light.”
“It is clear that they have openly disregarded the idea that OFRI is a public entity that should serve the interests of Oregonians,” Boyle said.
The institute, created by state lawmakers in 1991, was granted the ability to support the timber industry by educating the public about forests and wood products, and by helping private landowners manage their forests in ways that protect the environment.
But the law bars the institute from attempting to influence the actions of any other state agency, which could make the pushback against the Oregon State University study a violation, said William Funk, an emeritus law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.
“Even if lawful, it’s just wrong,” Funk said. “The academy should rule itself. It should not be strong-armed by industry in league with a government agency.”
After the carbon study was released, Paul Barnum, who served as the institute’s executive director at the time, told representatives of a national trade group, the American Wood Council, that he would work with state lobbyists to respond, calling the research “of grave concern to all of us in Oregon.”
“These are folks who likely believe that the planet would be better off without humans,” Barnum wrote in a May 2018 email.
Barnum offered to use the institute’s press release distribution service to circulate an analysis written by a former U.S. Forest Service employee who ran an online publication partly funded by timber industry groups. The analysis claimed the study underestimated emissions from wildfires and didn’t account for increased logging in other states or countries if Oregon cut fewer trees.
He also sent the analysis to a Republican state representative who was a supporter of the timber industry and later became vice chairman of the legislative committee negotiating the governor’s climate bill. In his email, Barnum said the analysis refuted the Oregon State University research, which had undergone peer review from fellow scientists. He later emailed the dean of Law’s college, objecting to a scheduled public radio appearance of hers.
“That’s not the way science works,” Law said in an interview. “It’s attacking academic freedom.”
Barnum, who retired as executive director in 2018 but continued working under contract through June, said it was not wrong for him to question the Oregon State University study or any other academic research. But he acknowledged making inappropriate comments, including some that questioned the researchers’ motives.
“My comments demeaned me, and more importantly, the organization I professed to represent,” Barnum said. “I regret my words and offer sincere apologies to those I discredited.”
“Too Sophisticated to Be Fooled by Propaganda”
Reeling from protests and lawsuits over cutting trees that were hundreds of years old, the state’s largest timber lobbying group in 1991 asked for help selling the benefits of forestry to Oregonians.
A year earlier, federal protections for the northern spotted owl had suddenly put millions of acres of Oregon’s national forests off-limits to logging.
With national news showing images of vast stretches of ancient forests that had been clear-cut, a practice in which thousands of trees are leveled at once, representatives of Oregon’s biggest timber companies attended a hearing in the state Capitol. They urged lawmakers to create an agency that would provide credible public education based on documented facts and reliable science.
The proposed agency would not rely “on wishful myths and clever slogans,” said John Hampton, then president of the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, an association representing the state’s biggest timber owners and manufacturers.
“There are those who have asked, why should the state sanction a propaganda machine for the forest industries?” Hampton told lawmakers in 1991. “The answer is, the people of Oregon are too sophisticated to be fooled by propaganda and, frankly, people like me who will pay for this program would not stand for it.”
That year, the state’s Legislature approved the creation of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.
As lawmakers raised taxes on logging to fund the institute, they cut millions of dollars in taxes that timber owners paid to fund schools and county governments. They also gave control of the institute’s tax rate to its board.
Today, with an annual budget of about $4 million, the institute creates television, radio and digital advertising campaigns, educational materials for classrooms, reports, workshops and illustrated manuals. It describes itself as “a centralized gateway of shared ideas and collaborative dialogue.”
The line between the timber industry’s lobbying work and the institute’s actions has often been blurred.
Many of the companies represented on the institute’s board are also members of the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, the industry’s primary lobbying group, according to the trade association’s website and tax filings.
Lawmakers gave timber companies control of the institute with nine of the 11 voting board seats. The other two voting positions are a small forest landowner and a representative for timber workers. The board also has one public member who cannot vote and is prohibited from belonging to an environmental advocacy group. The position has been vacant for all but a month since the January 2019 resignation of Chris Edwards, a former state senator who became a lobbyist for the timber industry.
Emails show institute employees routinely participated in the industry council’s public affairs and legislative strategy meetings. At one, Barnum and Isselmann got a sneak peek at political attack ads against Brown from Priority Oregon, a business group that opposed her reelection in 2018. Acknowledging in an interview that it was inappropriate, Barnum said they should have left.
Public employees at the institute helped timber industry groups plan a lobbying day at the state capitol, then asked the lobbyists not to include the institute’s name as a sponsor on the agenda, suggesting that they did not want the institute listed as a group that advocates with legislators.
They also coordinated a demonstration of aerial pesticide spraying and invited elected officials, singling out for special attention a lawmaker who’d tried to tighten spraying rules.
A spokeswoman for the timber industry council didn’t respond to specific questions about its relationship with the institute. Instead, she sent a statement praising the institute for 30 years of providing “valuable, foundational public understanding of one of our state’s greatest resources and cornerstone industries.”
The institute operates in near anonymity. Its own surveys show that few who see its advertisements remember who’s behind them.
In 2018, a potential recruit to lead the institute asked whether its board was open to new approaches. Barnum responded in an email, cautioning that there were limits to how much change would be tolerated.
Large industrial landowners provide roughly 75% to 80% of the institute’s funding, Barnum told the recruit.
“You can’t get too far ahead of those who pay the majority of the tax,” Barnum wrote, “at least not if you want to stay employed.”
“That’s Not the Way Science Works”
Hours before Beverly Law was scheduled to be interviewed on a Southern Oregon public radio station to discuss her research in June 2018, the dean of the Oregon State College of Forestry, Anthony Davis, received an email from Barnum suggesting her study was built on faulty assumptions.
“I understand academic freedom,” he told Davis in an email. But given criticisms from industry scientists and a timber-backed publication, “this seems like policy advocacy based on a heavily flawed study.”
In an interview, Barnum said the institute got involved because “historically, we have not felt it our role to be silent when we believe research to be biased, nonobjective or opaque.” He demurred when asked to identify mistakes in the report.
He said he was not trying to keep Law from appearing on Jefferson Public Radio. “I just was drawing it to his attention,” he said.
The suggestion that the study was flawed was nothing less than an attempt to stifle research, said William Schlesinger, the former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Schlesinger led the study’s peer review as an editor for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published the work.
“That’s one of the most stringent journals in the world,” Schlesinger said. The fact the scientists “were able to put together an analysis that survived the scrutiny of peer review speaks strongly to how solid that work is.”
Barnum continued criticizing Law’s research, sending a draft of a letter from the institute’s board to Davis on July 6, 2018, requesting that he quickly commission a separate review because “unfortunately, media and policymakers are already using the Law et. al. study to promote anti-logging agendas.”
Davis responded later that day to tell Barnum it would be inappropriate for him to comment on a draft letter.
“I was confident in the findings of the researchers and of the process used to publish the paper, which follows the process used by scientists all around the country and the world,” Davis said in an interview.
Barnum eventually withdrew the letter. Not because it upset the academics at Oregon State, but because the Oregon Forest & Industries Council’s executive director, Kristina McNitt, was displeased, telling Barnum she was “shocked” he forwarded the draft to the university without her group’s approval.
In another case, the institute spent multiple years discussing a response to a forthcoming study with potentially negative effects on industry, even as Barnum privately acknowledged the validity of the research.
Mark Needham, a professor in Oregon State’s forestry school, began planning a survey in 2017 to gauge public perceptions of herbicide spraying in private forests. Timber companies apply herbicides from helicopters to kill vegetation that sprouts in the bare earth of clear-cuts and competes for water and sunlight with newly planted tree seedlings.
Needham’s survey included questions about whether residents trusted private timber companies to provide truthful information about the issue and whether they would vote for or against aerial spraying if asked at the ballot.
Internal research by the timber industry has shown Oregonians are worried about the practice, which has become increasingly common as the state’s forests have been logged more frequently.
“The research project sounds legit, but also fairly dangerous,” Barnum wrote in a July 19, 2017, email. “We already know what the public perception about chemical use is, so to have something in the public domain, especially from the College of Forestry, that confirms it, would not be a good thing in my estimation.”
The survey was eventually distributed to more than 5,000 Oregon households in April 2019. Two months later, after a timber company alerted the institute about the survey progress, Isselmann emailed Davis, the forestry school’s dean, challenging the validity of the questions.
In a separate email to a timber executive, Isselmann said most peer-reviewed journals wouldn’t accept survey results unless they were high enough quality, but that “none of this will stop the researchers from promoting their work with the media and in OSU publications. I think we need to be prepared for this outcome and start now to educate policy makers and other influencers about the reliability and validity of survey research.”
She suggested in the email that the institute could prepare for the results by spending $60,000 on its own study.
“I don’t think my actions indicate that I was attacking science, and I think my actions reflect that I wanted to learn more about the survey and how its results would be used,” Isselmann said in an interview. The institute has not conducted its own survey, she said, and has no plans to.
Needham said that his survey responses are still being analyzed, and that Isselmann was incorrect to suggest the questions might be invalid.
“I live and die by the university’s tenets of academic freedom and the external scientific peer-review process,” Needham said. “It’ll be rigorous peer review, conducted by respected scientific journals in our field, that will judge the methods and results of our study.”
When professors at the University of Oregon produced a video critical of logging during a research project, the institute tried to kill the work. Barnum helped lead the pushback in May 2017.
As part of a study on how new 360-degree virtual reality videos affected viewer behavior, students and professors created a video for an environmental group that urged people to join the fight to update Oregon’s logging laws. Strategic communications professor Donna Davis, who studies virtual reality, wanted to know whether an immersive video would make viewers more likely to participate in a cause.
Objecting to the involvement of journalism professor Wes Pope in the video’s creation, Barnum joined a contingent of industry lawyers and lobbyists who alerted timber executives on the university’s board of trustees about the research, then met with school officials and threatened to pull timber donor funding if the university didn’t “extricate” itself from the project.
Barnum said the institute got involved because he saw it as an advocacy project using the university to disseminate negative information about forest practices.
Pope said the university allowed him and his colleagues to continue their work. But the professors, who lacked tenure, let it die. In part, Pope said they said they were worried about angering the timber industry.
“If anybody’s doing anything that possibly threatens or questions logging practices in the state of Oregon, they’re going to swoop in and crush that message really quickly and really thoroughly,” said Pope, now tenured.
Muddying the Waters
In 2013, residents in the tiny coastal town of Rockaway Beach received alerts about cancer-causing contamination in their drinking water after timber companies logged most of the hills around the creek that supplies the town.
The same year, state health officials released a study about the communities around Triangle Lake in Oregon’s Coast Range, the dominant timber-producing region, which found low levels of toxic herbicides in the drinking water, air and in residents’ urine. The state said it was possible timber spraying was the source. Residents in the area called for statewide restrictions on spraying within 2 miles of schools and homes, a request that reached then-Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office, though he didn’t grant it.
Pete Sikora, CEO of Giustina Resources, a large timber company operating in the same county, emailed Barnum to urge him to pay attention to the issue.
“I think drinking water is going to be our biggest public perception issue,” Sikora told Barnum. “As you know public perception often leads to public policy.”
Tens of thousands of residents in towns throughout Oregon’s heavily logged coastal mountains draw their drinking water from industrial forests. Industrial clear-cutting can reduce both the quality and quantity of drinking water, according to state regulators and recent research from Oregon State University.
For years, the institute has helped timber executives who worried about the threat that new drinking water protections would pose to their ability to log. The message that Oregon’s forests produced clean water was a central theme.
Two months after Sikora’s email, a commercial was released featuring two loggers, a father and son, standing creekside in a forest and pouring a glass of crystal clear water.
“This is Oregon water,” says the father, a third-generation logger.
“Oregon has strong laws that help protect our watersheds,” he says. “And besides, it’s the right thing to do.”
“You’ve got to have clean water,” his son says.
The commercial is part of the institute’s advertising campaign, which over the years has grown to be its single largest expenditure at $1 million annually. The campaign has reached Oregonians more than 300 million times since 2013, according to institute documents, with a key message: Oregonians live in a state with strong logging laws.
The commercials don’t acknowledge significant problems caused by industrial logging. The federal government withholds more than $1 million from Oregon each year because its laws don’t do enough to protect coastal rivers from logging pollution. Federal regulators have also faulted Oregon’s logging laws for pushing coastal salmon populations toward extinction.
“There’s only so many messages you can get into in a 30-second commercial,” Isselmann said. “We use the medium of television advertising to educate the public generally, and we direct them to our website and all of our materials if they would like to take a deeper dive and learn more information.”
Records show the institute’s employees have avoided publishing information on the website that could make Oregon’s laws look inadequate.
In 2016, a new employee, Inka Bajandas, faced resistance when she suggested writing a blog post comparing Oregon’s logging laws with California and Washington. Bajandas, the institute’s public outreach manager, told other institute leaders she wanted to address concerns that forest protection laws in Oregon were weaker than in other West Coast states.
“I’m also just genuinely curious about this,” she wrote.
Locke, who no longer works for the institute, told Bajandas that he believed the comparison was a bad idea.
“Certain elements (some that enviros think are most important)” of Oregon’s logging laws, he said, “are not quite as strong” as in Washington or California.
If his understanding was correct, Locke said, “then comparing the three could be a slippery slope. It’s not really about having the absolutely most stringent laws there are.”
Barnum, the institute’s director at the time, responded that Locke was “right on” with his response.
“We do not want to promote a regulatory ‘arms race’ among the three western states, which is where the enviros would like to take us,” Barnum wrote.
Asked about the exchange, Bajandas said the emails speak for themselves but don’t reflect the institute’s current management. Under Isselmann’s leadership, the institute has removed the phrase “strong laws” from advertisements, instead saying that forests are managed responsibly and protect drinking water.
“Because I don’t think a law is something that you can quantify,” Isselmann said. “It’s a fact. You either have a law or you don’t have a law.”
As lawmakers and environmental groups continued to press the issue of water protections, the institute spent $120,000 for Oregon State researchers to study the connections between logging and drinking water contamination.
In November 2019, with a ballot box fight looming over Oregon’s logging practices, the institute’s board discussed whether to speed up the release of the study.
Frustrated by years of legislative inaction, environmental advocates had proposed ballot measures to increase protections for communities that drew their drinking water from forests.
Oregon State’s report, which the institute initially hoped to time for the 2019 Legislature, was a year overdue.
Citing the ballot measures, Casey Roscoe, a board member and executive with Seneca Jones Timber Co., one of Oregon’s biggest logging companies, suggested accelerating the research during a public meeting, on a conference call that happened with nearly no one else outside the organization listening.
“I get if it’s not ready for prime time, but will people be able to access it in order to use that science in conversations and so forth?” Roscoe asked.
“Sometimes, you can stop things before they start,” Roscoe told board members.
Roscoe, whose company gave more than $100,000 to the industry campaign against the measures, said in an interview that she wanted both sides to have the best information available.
Timber companies and environmental advocates ultimately struck an agreement in February to negotiate new logging rules, eliminating the urgency for a report that could help contest ballot measures.
In June, the institute released a draft of the Oregon State study along with its own summary of the scientists’ work. The institute hired Barnum to write the 24-page summary, which downplays some of the more critical aspects of the 321-page study.
The science review says Oregon’s forest practices laws are insufficient to protect some aspects of water quality. It highlights survey results in which dozens of municipal drinking water providers in Oregon said logging was their biggest concern.
It concludes with a list of recommendations, including changes to the state’s logging laws, mandatory reporting of chemical use in forests, increased pesticide sampling and more tree buffers along small streams to prevent chemicals from getting into the water.
The institute’s summary, however, focuses on how forests provide higher-quality water than cities or farms.
It makes no mention of deficiencies in Oregon’s logging laws and says they “help safeguard drinking water sources.”
It doesn’t list any of the scientists’ recommendations. Instead, it ends by saying: “As Oregonians in 2020, this is where we find ourselves: with high-quality water, significantly improved forest practices and the ability to continue improving. And that, I believe, is worth a toast, not only to our forests that supply the raw water, but to those who keep the water safe – from trees to tap.”
“Why Wouldn’t You Want to Know What the Science Is Saying?”
A year after the Oregon State University carbon study was published, the climate bill that had worried the institute came before the state Legislature.
It was 2019, and Democrats had gained a supermajority in both chambers, promising to make Oregon the second state in the nation behind California with a cap on carbon emissions by targeting pollution from fuel consumption and manufacturing. Republicans said they’d do everything they could to stop the bill.
Law, the lead researcher, said she heard state senators citing not her study, but the talking points undermining it that the institute had circulated months before.
“That’s unfortunate because honestly, really, why wouldn’t you want to know what the science is saying?” Law said.
The industry had been concerned that Law’s study would prompt the governor to target logging in the climate bill. But she and lawmakers not only excluded logging, they added an amendment to ensure the measure would avoid any reductions in logging.
The bill died after 11 Senate Republicans walked out of the capitol and went into hiding, denying Democrats the quorum they needed for passage.
The institute was absent during the carbon debate. Its leaders were defending their budget from a longtime Democratic lawmaker, state Rep. Paul Holvey, who said the institute’s advertisements were a disturbing use of money that could be better spent fighting wildfires. His bill died after the timber industry opposed defunding the institute. Rather than shrinking by 60% as Holvey had proposed, the institute’s budget grew after its board approved an increase in logging taxes that spring.
Oregon State’s forestry college also wanted an increase to fund new research. But the lawmakers kept the college’s funding flat after the timber industry opposed the increase.
By the time the Legislature adjourned, the institute had begun its own research report to study carbon in Oregon’s forests.
To write it, the institute recruited the same consultant that industry lobbyists used to refute Law’s study.
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.”