Governor’s candidates for ailing forestry department board could be stranded as wildfires rage

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As forest policy takes on new and vital importance in the midst of huge Oregon wildfiresGov. Kate Brown struggles to get Senate confirmation for three candidates for the State Forest Council amid what her office says is logging companies’ insistence that she nominate a list more favorable to industry.

In an interview on Friday, Brown said she feared the very long and controversial nomination and confirmation process to fill board positions might be broken.

“The challenge is to find a list that can be confirmed,” she said. “I’m afraid we are at a stalemate at this point. Unfortunately, there are too many special interests invested in the results and this makes it difficult when we are proposing qualified candidates.

The seven-member council oversees public and private forest policy in Oregon, appoints the state forester, adopts new rules regulating forestry practices and oversees the administration of the state forester of the forestry department.

For several years, the board and the ministry have been characterized by dysfunction and chaos. The board has been torn apart by the conflict between the voices of conservation and industry, and unable to speak decisively on critical policy issues or curb agency managers who have ignored guidelines and requests for information from members of the board.

The agency, meanwhile, is beset by structural financial and operational problems, including inadequate funding of its state forestry program, outdated financial systems, and delays in collecting unpaid firefighting costs – a critical issue given that hundreds of millions of dollars could be added to its budget. this fire season’s claims.

Last year, the board put state forester Peter Daugherty – whose appointment and retention is the responsibility of the board – on a performance improvement plan due to of his poor communication on the deep financial problems of the agency and his lack of responsiveness towards the members of the board of directors.

Shortly after, the forestry department and state lost a lawsuit brought by 13 rural counties and 151 local tax districts that claimed the agency had failed to maximize timber harvests from state forests and forests. resulting payments to these counties over the past two decades. The verdict of the billion dollar jury is still on appeal, with an interest rate of 9%, or $ 90 million per year.

Behind the scenes are two related policy debates that may be the most controversial in council history: the adoption of a new management plan governing levels of harvest and conservation of state forests; and the possibility of adopting a federally supervised program for state forests, the so-called “Habitat Conservation Plan” which would establish firm conservation commitments in exchange for greater legal flexibility to exploit other areas regardless of impacts on endangered species.

The board is expected to vote this week whether to advance a draft of the latter plan, but the new board would be tasked with adopting and implementing it. It’s a plan that environmentalists are supporting after seeing the agency’s previous conservation commitments slashed to generate more revenue; and industry groups oppose it because they believe it will lead to lower timber harvests and job losses in sawmills.

The governor’s office said industry players rejected the governor’s list. Kristina McNitt, president of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, the industry’s lobbying arm, disagreed on Friday with this characterization of the group’s stance on candidates. A spokeswoman said it was “incorrect information”. But they didn’t elaborate.

But in the meantime, three Senate Democrats who represent timber-dependent districts – Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose; Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Lee Beyer, D-Springfield – say they oppose nominations.

Assuming all 12 Senate Republicans vote against the candidates and are joined by all three Democrats, that leaves the governor short of the 16 votes needed in the Senate to approve them. Candidates might not even come out of a vote scheduled by the Senate Rules Committee on Monday, as Senate Speaker Peter Courtney may not want to bring them to a floor vote just to see it fail. Likewise, it is not clear whether the governor’s office will withdraw the candidates or whether it wants to force Senate Democrats to an uncomfortable vote.

Charles Boyle, spokesman for the governor, said Friday evening his office had not withdrawn the appointments. They are still on the committee’s agenda for Monday.

Brown says she is looking for board members who think independently, have financial, management and climate expertise. She also said she wanted board members who “will bring new ideas and hopefully create an approach where we can meet in the middle and create better results for all Oregonians… We really need to focus on what this board needs at this point “.

She named Karla Chambers, co-owner of Stahlbush Family Farms and a member of the forest fire preparedness board that Brown appointed in January 2019; Chandra Ferrari, environmental lawyer, most recently at Trout Unlimited; and Sidney Cooper, a financial services executive from Ashland and recently transplanted from California.

State law limits the number of board members who have a financial interest in forest products, and these candidates would ostensibly preserve the board’s current balance. Chambers, who is a member of the board of directors of Hampton Lumber, would replace one of the outgoing members in an “industrial headquarters”. Ferrari would replace Cindy Williams, fish biologist and conservation voice. Cooper, who the governor selected after researching people of color to diversify the board, is sort of a number, as he has no experience in public policy or forestry. He would take the seat left vacant by outgoing board chairman Tom Imeson, a Portland businessman seen as a centrist.

Beyer and Roblan said on Friday they did not oppose any of the candidates individually, but felt the board needed the perspective of a small timber owner, who is an important part of the industry. state forest. One name that has been circulating is Clinton Bentz, an accountant and second generation family woodland owner of Scio in Lane County. He is also the cousin of former Senator Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who is the current Republican candidate to replace incumbent US Representative Greg Walden.

Beyer also said he believes the current board is out of balance. He says he spoke to the governor about it four times, “but she hasn’t made it yet.”

He added that the governor argued that board member Jim Kelly, a former Portland businessman who has since moved to eastern Oregon, brings a perspective from a small wood owner. But Beyer said from a social point of view, “he’s an environmentalist.”

This may be another concern for industry groups, as Kelly could take over the chairmanship of the board with the departure of Imeson. And they may not feel like Chambers fully represents their point of view.

The governor could replace Chambers with Bentz. She said on Friday that she had discussed this option, but that Chambers had brought key leadership skills, knowledge of state government, service to the wildfire board and a valuable perspective from her experience within boards of directors of Hampton Lumber and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Boyle, the governor’s spokesperson, said early in the nomination process his office had a series of conversations with industry leaders in a good faith effort to determine what type of candidate they would like to see for any of the vacancies.

“Balance is essential at the Forest Council, to ensure that all voices are represented at the table,” Boyle said. “It now seems clear that their objections to the governor’s slate are not about Karla Chambers’ qualifications, but that they want to win two board seats instead of one. This does not align with the governor’s vision for a balanced board of directors that aims to achieve the best results for all Oregon residents, not special interests.

Environmentalists, for their part, are categorically opposed to the appointment of the two Chambers and Bentz. “The industry can count as well as I do,” said Bob Van Dyk, policy director for Oregon and Washington at the Wild Salmon Center. “At the end of the day, they want four votes. “

Steve Zika, chief executive of Hampton Lumber, said he doesn’t spend time on Board of Forestry appointments.

“Most of our time is spent on the (habitat conservation plan) process that the ODF is engaged in and trying to get them to work with the counties to negotiate a more balanced deal with the federal government that doesn’t block not 50% of the earth, ”he said. “One would think with recent evidence of what the federal land lockdown has accomplished (no increase in spotted owls and excessive fuel loads that add to the risk of catastrophic fires) that ODF would be smarter.”

Senator Betsy Johnson said on Friday that she wholeheartedly supported “the brave men and women” on the front lines of the Oregon fires and that they deserve an agency that can perform well administratively.

“I would support a list of candidates who have the capacity to turn around this struggling agency,” she said. “I am less interested in candidates who represent particular interests and more interested in a board of directors capable of managing the agency. I don’t know if these new nominees and the remaining board members represent these change agents.

–Ted Sickinger; [email protected]; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger

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