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How The Big Oregon Timber Deal Came Together, And How It Could Fall Apart

This week started off on a celebratory note in Salem: environmentalists and timber groups struck a deal they hailed as historic, an agreement that would save the state from an epic and expensive battle over Oregon’s forests.

But by the end of the week, Republicans were vowing to stage another walkout — at least one said his bag was already packed — and there was word the governor was mulling calling a special legislative session every day if they did, a move that would force Republicans to either stay outside state lines for the rest of the year or return to the Capitol.

Welcome to Salem in 2020.

On Sunday, the governor’s office alerted news outlets: they were on the brink of announcing a landmark deal addressing the longtime struggles over how the state’s forests are managed.

CEOs from some of the state’s largest timber industry companies, including Weyerhaeuser, Seneca Jones Timber Company and Hampton Lumber, had approached Gov. Kate Brown in January to seek help brokering a deal with conservation groups.

Despite decades of mistrust between the two groups, both timber representatives and environmentalists agreed to an initial meeting. Timber executives showed up in button-up shirts with their sleeves rolled up. Environmentalists wore suits and ties. They joked about how their attire defied stereotypes. It seemed the groups were working to relate to one another.

The first meeting went well. By the end of the fourth, they neared a deal.

On Monday morning, the governor convened a press conference announcing the landmark agreement.

The deal, however, hinges on a certain piece of legislation regulating aerial pesticide spraying passing this legislative session.

That means if Republicans stage another walkout, a step they took last year to prevent a vote on a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions via a policy known as cap and trade, they risk blowing up the historic forest management compromise.

Initially, the forest arrangement seemed like a savvy strategic move by the Democrats in Salem. Timber groups are big financial backers of Oregon Republicans. Surely, GOP legislators wouldn’t risk blowing up this agreement with political maneuvering.

At the press conference Monday, a reporter asked the governor: “Does this have any impact on cap-and-trade?”

She said no, then paused. 

“I think it’s fair to say we obviously need a quorum to pass this legislation,” Brown said.

It’s clear Democrats need a quorum to pass bills. It’s less evident whether they will have one.

Senate Republicans fled the state last legislative session to block a bill that would fight climate change by capping emissions and charging large polluters. It’s commonly known as cap and trade, because the policy forces big polluters in the transportation, utility and manufacturing sectors to obtain credits for every ton of greenhouse gas they emit.

Democrats are pushing a similar plan this year, and in order to pass the legislation, they need at least two Senate Republicans to be in the chamber for a vote to take place.

The governor might insist cap-and-trade and the forest deal aren’t connected. But Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass, sees a tie. 

Initially, he said the historic forest management agreement undercut his ability to block the climate bill. A day later, his tone changed. Republicans aren’t beholden to large corporate timber industries, he said. In other words: he’s willing to blow up the forest management deal if it means stopping cap-and-trade.

“What they basically said is if you want the timber industry’s pesticide bill to pass, you’re going to have to stick around for cap-and-trade. And we simply can’t do that,” Baertschiger told conservative radio host Lars Larson Thursday. “So the timber industry didn’t do us any favor. I don’t know who was advising them politically, but I would give them their walking papers.”

Other Republicans took a similar stance.

Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, said the timber leaders who struck the deal with the governor live in a different reality. He’s fighting for the people who drive the log trucks, run the mills and cut down the trees, he said. That’s who he sees as being hurt by the cap-and-trade proposal.

“Not big, huge massive corporate landowners,” he said.

Sean Stevens with the conservation group Oregon Wild said it’s unclear what happens if the aerial pesticide bill doesn’t pass this session. The bill would increase notification requirements for aerial pesticide spraying and increase buffers for spraying around schools, homes and streams.

“From our perspective, we sincerely hope and expect that a landmark agreement of this magnitude can bring elected officials together by the end of session,” he wrote in an email. “If they fail, we’ll all have to reassess where we are at.”

A knowledgeable source confirmed Brown has considered calling a special legislative session every single day if there is another Republican walkout. The move would prolong the end of what's supposed to be a 35-day legislative session and possibly force Senate Republicans into hiding across state lines and out of the jurisdiction from the state police for an extended period of time.

The session is scheduled to end on March 8.

OPB's Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.

<p>Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, talks to his fellow senators. Oregon state senators gather in the Senate chambers on Feb. 11, 2020 in Salem, Oregon.</p>

Kaylee Domzalski


Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, talks to his fellow senators. Oregon state senators gather in the Senate chambers on Feb. 11, 2020 in Salem, Oregon.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake is a political reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.