Oregon House voted on Tuesday to slash the Oregon Forest Resources Institute’s budget by two-thirds and redirect the money to the type of climate science it was trying to undermine, issuing a stern rebuke to an agency-funded tax which, according to a press investigation, had attacked scientists. and acted as a lobbying and public relations arm for the lumber industry.
Representatives agreed in a 32-27 vote to increase the institute’s oversight, end its public advertising campaign, and shift $ 2.7 million from its annual budget of $ 4 million. to the Oregon Forest Department for projects including climate research in forests and assistance to small landowners. The bill now goes to the Oregon Senate for consideration.
The Oregon Forest Resources Institute, known as OFRI, was established in 1991 to educate the public about forestry and to teach landowners about forestry laws and good environmental practices.
A joint investigation by The Oregonian / OregonLive, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica in August found that the institute had acted de facto as a lobbying arm for the lumber industry, in some cases bypassing legal constraints upon it. prohibited. The investigation showed that the organization attacked scientists studying carbon in Oregon’s forests, calling them “people who probably believe the planet would be better off without humans.”
State Representative Khanh Pham, D-Portland, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview that she was outraged by the investigation’s findings, praising news outlets for speaking out against the OFRI actions. She said she had received a flood of emails from voters who wanted to see the institute held accountable.
“It was alarming, frustrating and revealing to know where our public dollars were going,” Pham said.
Lawmakers established a logging tax to pay for the institute, while reducing taxes paid by the lumber industry that helped fund schools and local governments. News organizations found that tax cuts for the lumber industry had cost Oregon an estimated $ 3 billion in lost revenue since 1991, at the expense of rural counties struggling to provide basic government services. .
The Oregon Forest & Industries Council, the state trading group that drafted the institute’s bill in 1991, strongly opposed the changes. Its lobbyists have said the institute is providing the necessary promotion for one of Oregon’s major industries.
“It would be a serious miscarriage of justice to eliminate the jobs of dedicated public employees for no other reason than a sensational newspaper article,” Mike Eliason, an industry council lobbyist, said during testimony before the legislators.
Lawmakers in this session stalled efforts to reinstate a tax that big logging companies paid on the value of trees they fell. Timber tax policy is now more likely to be taken up by a task force or task force with the aim of developing legislation for a future session, according to Representative Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who sponsored the bill to reinstate the tax.
Representative Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said she was disappointed lawmakers did not do more on timber taxes this session. Salinas, who sponsored the OFRI bill, said it took much longer than expected to pass.
“It seemed so small. It should have been so easy, ”Salinas said of the OFRI bill. “There was a lot about how to restructure the severance tax and the harvest tax. These are feeling really big and tough now.
During more than 90 minutes of debate in the House on Tuesday, many lawmakers cited the investigation and said the institute’s actions demanded an immediate response.
In a speech upstairs from the house, the co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, told his colleagues that he would have preferred to eliminate OFRI entirely. But some Democrats were reluctant. The final bill, Wilde said, is a “critical correction to an agency that has strayed from its course.”
Representative Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said the legislative compromise that avoided the institute’s elimination won her vote. She said her nieces and nephews had attended her “fabulous” educational programs for schoolchildren, which will remain one of her main duties. She encouraged state senators to take a close look at the bill.
“There were many compromises and many good opportunities that were left on the table,” she said. McLain did not develop what she meant.
Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat who has been the target of some of the institute’s lobbying efforts, called the inquiry’s findings “deeply disturbing.” House Speaker Tina Kotek said she was “appalled” by the institute’s attacks on scientific research.
Brown has requested an audit from the Oregon Secretary of State which is expected to be completed in late June or early July. A spokesperson for Brown said the governor generally does not take a position on bills still pending in the legislative process.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill said it would gut the institute and leave it without the capacity to support one of the state’s main rural industries.
Bill Post Rep. R-Keizer, who voted no, urged his colleagues to wait for the results of an audit scheduled this summer by the Oregon Secretary of State. “The Oregonian and the OPB are not judge and party in Oregon and good policy shouldn’t be based on the opinions of certain journalists,” Post said.
Thousands of documents obtained by news agencies documented how the agency targeted academic climate change research and spent millions of dollars on advertisements promoting Oregon’s logging laws, even though they did. were behind regulations in neighboring California and Washington.
Its leaders also participated in the deliberations of a lobby group over the attack ads against Governor Brown during his 2018 re-election bid.
The bill strengthens oversight of the institute’s activities by expanding the OFRI’s board of directors from 11 to 13 voting members with a new member who would represent environmental groups and another who must have experience in fisheries science or wildlife. Previously, the lumber industry controlled all board votes, and a non-voting member of the public was prohibited from belonging to a group or company known to support the environment.
The bill sends 50% of OFRI’s funding, about $ 2 million, to the state forestry department to study strong forestry projects, including promoting forest health, monitoring use pesticides in forests and the promotion of climate science and policies. Another 17%, approximately $ 700,000, will be used to educate smallholder family forest owners about state logging laws. OFRI will retain $ 1.3 million of its annual budget of $ 4 million.
OFRI director Erin Isselmann rebuffed criticism from lawmakers of the institute, calling them “inaccurate and damaging to my professional and personal reputation.” Emails showed that she challenged the validity of an Oregon State University researcher’s project studying public perceptions of herbicide spraying in private forests with her dean.
She suggested in an email to a lumber official 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, said it was operating “to the highest ethical standards.” She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the House vote.
The 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 stalled at the House Revenue Committee after State Representative John Lively, D-Springfield, proposed an amendment expanding the institute’s mandate, maintaining its funding and making the fact explicitly legal for them. OFRI employees to lobby and influence legislation. The amendment was rejected.
Prior to joining the Legislative Assembly in 2012, Lively worked as an account manager at Cawood, a Eugene marketing firm that has a $ 2 million contract with the Forestry Institute to produce its publications and other materials. Lively said in an interview that he briefly worked on the OFRI account.
Lively said he consulted with the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, the state’s leading lumber industry lobby group, to draft the amendment. He said he supported the institute’s audit but was not redirecting its funding, which the board also objected to.
“This is all driven by The Oregonian’s article and what happened or didn’t happen,” Lively said. “From my perspective, I am convinced that you listen to all aspects of the story before you take action.
Environmental groups that have criticized the institute’s activities have welcomed the vote.
“We are encouraged to see the Legislature take seriously the evidence of the illegal use of public funds by OFRI,” said Sean Stevens, Executive Director of Oregon Wild. “This legislation will curb their worst actions, while supporting the kind of sustainable forestry Oregonians expect.”
This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica and The Oregonian / OregonLive.