Oregon House Moves to Curb Forest Institute’s Power and Budget 1

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The Oregon House on Tuesday passed a bill to redirect funding from a tax-funded institute created 30 years ago to inform residents about forestry, after an investigation found that the organization sought to discredit scientists and acted as a lobbying and public relations arm for the timber industry.

Representatives voted 32-27 to cut the Oregon Forest Resources Institute’s budget by two-thirds and redirect the money to the type of climate science the organization tried to undermine. The legislation, which now moves to the Oregon State Senate for consideration, would increase oversight of the institute and end its public advertising campaign. It would also shift $2.7 million of the institute’s $4 million annual budget to the Oregon Department of Forestry for projects that include climate research in forests and that would educate smaller family forestland owners about the state’s logging laws.

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 and attempted to discredit 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. After the investigation was published, Pham said, she 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.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute, known as OFRI, was created in 1991 to educate the public about forestry and teach landowners about logging laws and sound environmental practices. 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 cost Oregon an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue since 1991.

The legislation approved by the House on Tuesday was opposed by the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, the state trade group that pushed for the creation of the institute in 1991. 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.

Timber industry lobbyists and some lawmakers have repeatedly attacked the investigation in an effort to undermine legislation. The news organizations obtained and reviewed thousands of documents from OFRI through the state’s public records law that showed 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.

The records also revealed that OFRI leaders sat in on a lobbying group’s deliberations about attack ads against Gov. Kate Brown during her 2018 bid for reelection.

Brown, a Democrat, has called the investigation’s findings “deeply troubling” and requested an audit by the Oregon Secretary of State. The audit 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 their way through the legislative process. In requesting the audit, Brown’s office said such a probe was “necessary to bring transparency to whether OFRI conducts its mission in keeping with its statutory authority, including the clear prohibition on OFRI influencing, or attempting to influence state policy.”

Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat from Lake Oswego who sponsored the OFRI bill, said passing it was more difficult than she anticipated. “This felt so small. It should have been so easy,” Salinas said.

Salinas said she was disappointed that lawmakers have not done more to address bigger issues, including reinstating the tax that large timber companies previously 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, a Democrat from Eugene who sponsored a bill to restore the tax.

The OFRI bill would boost oversight of the institute’s activities by expanding the institute’s board from 11 to 13 voting members, with one new member who 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. The institute had a nonvoting public member, but that person was prohibited from belonging to a group or business “known to support or promote environmental or conservation issues.”

OFRI would retain $1.3 million of its $4 million annual budget for education, tours and other outreach.

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

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

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

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 industries.

Rep. Bill Post, a Republican from Keizer who voted no, urged his colleagues to wait for the results of the state audit. “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. The news organizations have published a piece that details the investigation, which was based on extensive interviews and documents.

OFRI’s director, Erin Isselmann, has pushed back against lawmakers’ criticisms, calling them “inaccurate and harmful both to my professional and personal reputation.” Emails obtained by the news organizations showed she contacted a dean at Oregon State University to challenge the validity of a researcher’s project, which studied public perceptions of herbicide spraying in private forests.

She suggested in one June 2019 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 operated “under the highest ethical standards.” She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bill had initially stalled in the House Committee on Revenue 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 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.”