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Environmentalists Want More From Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

<p>Oregon Gov. Kate Brown</p>

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Oregonians listening to the Pandora streaming music website might hear a seemingly surprising commercial about Gov. Kate Brown and the environment.

The new ad, from the environmental advocacy group Oregon Wild, complains about how Brown has handled issues ranging from Portland air pollution to endangered wolves. It charges that she “is failing to protect the things that make the state special.”

Brown has received plenty of favorable publicity on environmental issues. She recently won national praise from many environmentalists for signing major climate-change bills aimed at phasing out coal and reducing the use of fossil fuels in vehicles.

But many Oregon environmental activists say she hasn’t done enough on some of the state’s long-running conservation issues. And they hope to use the 2016 campaign season to push her into developing a more vigorous agenda.

“We’re looking for that leadership from her, and so far we haven’t seen that to the degree we would like,” said Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

Moore’s group, which serves as the political arm of the environmental community, has so far not issued an endorsement in the gubernatorial race. Moore praised many of the governor’s decisions but said she hasn’t staked out a strong vision for what she wants to accomplish if she wins election. Brown faces little opposition in the May 17 Democratic primary and is considered the favorite in the fall against either of the two main Republican contenders, businessman Allen Alley and Salem physician Bud Pierce.

Brown’s communications director, Kristen Grainger, said in a statement that during Brown’s first 13 months in office, “she has successfully advanced many of the environmental community’s priorities.” In addition to the climate-change bills, Grainger said Brown had a long list of legislative accomplishments that includes winning additional funding for the state’s fish and wildlife agency and a measure reducing toxic chemicals in children’s products.

Moore and other environmental activists say they recognize that Brown, catapulted into the governor’s seat when John Kitzhaber resigned in early 2015, didn’t have time to craft a prepared list of environmental priorities or even her own environmental staff.

But Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, said his members are troubled by what they’ve seen over the last year. Thus the Internet ad.

"It doesn’t seem like the environment is high on her priority list,” he said. He noted, for example, that Brown was not the driving force behind either of the climate change bills the legislature passed in 2015 and 2016.

Stevens, whose group focuses on protecting wilderness and wildlife, criticized Brown for not pushing legislators last year on legislation putting new restrictions on aerial spraying in forests. And he said that the long-delayed release of information about alarming air pollution from Portland glassmakers reflected long-standing concerns about the Department of Environmental Quality’s enforcement.

DEQ Director Dick Pedersen resigned as the pollution scare attracted major news coverage, and Brown outlined several steps she was taking to deal with the problem in a Feb. 15 statement. She acknowledged that “federal and state regulatory programs are clearly inadequate to assure the public that their health is being protected.”

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who has worked closely with the environmental community, said the governor moved quickly once the pollution problems came to light. And he praised Brown’s work in the passage of the coal and clean-fuel bills.

“But I would agree that her positions have so far been reactive, even if reactive in what I would consider to be a good way,” Dembrow said in an exchange of texts with OPB while traveling abroad. He said Brown needs to “articulate a proactive vision of how Oregon can be a leader in protecting the environment.”

Stevens, however, said too many of Brown’s reactive decisions have gone in the wrong direction. He said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and helped spark his group’s ad was Brown’s signing of a wolf bill this month. The measure seeks to shut down a lawsuit challenging the removal of the gray wolf from state’s endangered species list.

Stevens said efforts to bar environmental litigation have long rankled conservation activists, and he worried that Brown was setting a bad precedent for her administration.

When she signed the wolf bill, Brown said she was committed to recovering the species in Oregon. She pledged to make sure that state regulators work with a wide variety of groups on wolf recovery. Her decision to sign the bill was praised by many rural legislators and agricultural groups who have often charged that environmental groups resort to lawsuits as a delaying tactic.

Several environmental activists said they didn’t want to speak publicly about Brown’s record because they wanted to maintain good relations with the governor. Many acknowledge they have little alternative to Brown since the Oregon Republican Party is more closely allied with the natural resource industries.

Moore, of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, said that the support of environmentalists is important to Brown. He noted that she not only faces an election in 2016, but another in 2018 if she wins.

“This is a governor who has two elections back to back,” Moore said, “and having an uninspired part of her base is something that no politician would want to see.”

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Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.