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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Oregon House Moves To Curb Forest Institute’s Power And Budget

Logging trucks roll down Santiam Highway in front of the Detroit Ranger Station where about two dozen people gathered  April 15, 2021, protesting the post-wildfire logging along fire-impacted roads impacted by the wildfires of 2020.
Logging trucks roll down Santiam Highway in front of the Detroit Ranger Station where about two dozen people gathered April 15, 2021, protesting the post-wildfire logging along fire-impacted roads impacted by the wildfires of 2020.

One lawmaker called the changes a ‘critical correction to an agency that veered far off course.’

The Oregon House voted Tuesday to cut the Oregon Forest Resources Institute’s budget by two-thirds and redirect the money to the type of climate science it tried to undermine, delivering a sharp rebuke to a tax-funded agency that a news investigation showed had attacked scientists and acted as a lobbying and public relations arm for the timber industry.

Representatives agreed in a 32-27 vote to increase oversight of the institute, end its public advertising campaign and shift $2.7 million of its $4 million annual budget to the Oregon Department of Forestry for projects including climate research in forests and assisting small landowners. The bill now moves to the Oregon Senate for consideration.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute, known as OFRI, was created in 1991 to educate the public about forestry and to teach landowners about logging laws and sound environmental practices.

A joint investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica in August revealed that the institute had acted as a de-facto lobbying arm of the timber industry, in some cases skirting legal constraints that forbid it from doing so. The investigation showed that the organization attacked scientists studying carbon in Oregon’s forests, with one top official calling them “folks who likely believe that the planet would be better off without humans.”

State Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview that she was outraged by the investigation’s findings, praising the news organizations for exposing OFRI’s actions. She said she had received a flood of emails from constituents who wanted to see the institute held accountable.

“It was alarming, frustrating and eye-opening where our public dollars were going,” Pham said.

Lawmakers established a tax on logging to pay for the institute, at the same time cutting taxes paid by the timber industry that helped fund schools and local governments. The news organizations found that tax cuts for the timber industry had cost Oregon an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue since 1991, which came at the expense of rural counties struggling to provide basic government services.

The Oregon Forest & Industries Council, the state trade group that wrote the bill creating the institute in 1991, has strongly opposed changes. Its lobbyists said the institute provides necessary promotion of one of Oregon’s backbone industries.

“It would be a gross miscarriage of justice to eliminate the jobs of dedicated public employees for no reason other than a sensationalized newspaper story,” Mike Eliason, an industry council lobbyist, said in testimony to lawmakers.

Lawmakers this session stalled in their efforts to reinstate a tax that large timber companies paid on the value of trees they logged. Timber tax policy is now more likely to be taken up by a task force or work group with the intent of crafting legislation for a future session, according to Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who sponsored the bill to restore the tax.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said she was disappointed lawmakers haven’t done more on timber taxes this session. Salinas, who sponsored the OFRI bill, said passing it took far more time than she anticipated.

“This felt so small. It should have been so easy,” Salinas said of the OFRI bill. “There was a lot around how to restructure the severance tax and the harvest tax. Those feel really big and difficult now.”

During more than 90 minutes of debate on the House floor Tuesday, numerous lawmakers cited the news investigation and said the institute’s actions demanded an immediate response.

In a speech on the house floor, bill co-sponsor Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, told his colleagues he would have preferred to completely eliminate OFRI. But some Democrats were reluctant. The final bill, Wilde said, is a “critical correction to an agency that veered far off course.”

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said the legislative compromise that staved off the institute’s elimination won her vote. She said her nieces and nephews had been through its “fabulous” educational programs for school children, which will remain as one of its core functions. She encouraged state senators to closely examine the bill.

“There were many compromises and there were many good opportunities that were left on the table,” she said. McLain did not expand on what she meant.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat who was the target of some of the institute’s lobbying efforts, has called the investigation’s findings “deeply troubling.” House Speaker Tina Kotek has said she was “appalled” by the institute’s attacks on scientific research.

Brown requested an audit by Oregon’s Secretary of State that is expected to be completed in late June or early July. A spokesperson for Brown said the governor does not generally take positions on bills still working through the legislative process.

Lawmakers who opposed the bill said it would gut the institute and leave it without the ability to support one of the state’s key rural industries.

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, who voted no, urged his colleagues to wait for the results of an audit due this summer from the Oregon Secretary of State. “The Oregonian and OPB are not judge and jury in Oregon and good policy should not be based on the opinions of some journalists,” Post said.

Thousands of records obtained by the news organizations documented how the agency targeted university climate change research and spent millions of dollars on advertisements that promoted Oregon’s logging laws as strong, even as they fell behind regulations in neighboring California and Washington.

Its leaders also sat in on a lobbying group’s deliberations about attack ads against Gov. Brown during her 2018 bid for reelection.

The bill boosts oversight of the institute’s activities by expanding OFRI’s board from 11 to 13 voting members with one new member that would represent environmental groups and another required to have experience in fisheries or wildlife science. Previously, the timber industry controlled all of the board’s votes and a non-voting public member was prohibited from belonging to a group or business known to support the environment.

The bill sends 50% of OFRI’s funding, about $2 million, to the state Department of Forestry for studying sound forestry projects, including promoting forest health, monitoring pesticide use in forests and advancing climate science and policy. Another 17%, about $700,000, will be used to educate smaller family forestland owners about the state’s logging laws. OFRI will retain $1.3 million of its $4 million annual budget.

OFRI’s director, Erin Isselmann, has pushed back against lawmakers’ criticisms of the institute, calling them “inaccurate and harmful both to my professional and personal reputation.” Emails showed she challenged the validity of an Oregon State University researcher’s project studying public perceptions of herbicide spraying in private forests with his dean.

She suggested in one email to a timber executive that the institute could prepare for the results by spending $60,000 on its own study. Isselmann, who has been the institute’s executive director since July 2018, has said she has operated “under the highest ethical standards.” She did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the House vote.

All 22 Republicans present voted against the bill. They were joined by five Democrats.

Institute employees will be required to report annually on their interactions with elected officials and ensure that any educational materials, field trips or other educational initiatives include what the bill calls “a conservation perspective.”

The bill had stalled in the House Revenue Committee after state Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, proposed an amendment expanding the institute’s mandate, maintaining its funding and explicitly making it legal for OFRI employees to lobby and influence legislation. The amendment was rejected.

Before joining the Legislature in 2012, Lively worked as an account manager at Cawood, a Eugene marketing firm that has a $2 million contract with the forest institute to produce its publications and other materials. Lively said in an interview that he worked briefly on the OFRI account.

Lively said he consulted with the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, the timber industry’s main state lobbying group, to draft the amendment. He said he supported auditing the institute but not redirecting its funding, which the council also opposed.

“This is all driven by the article in The Oregonian and what did or didn’t happen,” Lively said. “From my standpoint, I’m a believer that you listen to all sides of the story before you take action.”

Environmental groups that have criticized the institute’s activities lauded the vote.

“We are heartened to see the Legislature taking seriously the evidence of illegal use of public funds by OFRI,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild. “This legislation is going to rein in their worst actions, while also supporting the kind of sustainable forestry that Oregonians expect.”

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica and The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.