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Timber 'education' agency oversteps its role

A state audit of the tax-supported Oregon Forest Resources Institute should provide a long-overdue look at whether the quasi-governmental agency has overstepped its role by illegally attempting to influence policy on behalf of the timber industry. Investigative reporting by Pro Publica, The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting strongly suggest that it has done exactly that, operating as though it were an industry-supported lobbying firm, not a benign public agency.

Gov. Kate Brown requested the audit from the secretary of state’s office this week.

The Legislature created OFRI in 1991 to educate the public about forestry and to educate landowners about logging laws and environmental practices. Lawmakers funded the institute with a tax on logging but cut taxes timber companies paid that supported schools and local governments.

The institute has not been audited since 1996.

Reporters working on the joint investigation obtained emails and other records showing OFRI worked to discredit an Oregon State University study that said logging was one of the state’s biggest contributors to climate change. The researchers concluded that cutting trees on private timberlands less frequently, allowing them to grow older before harvest, could dramatically shrink the state’s carbon footprint.

Needless to say, this did not sit well with the timber industry, which had been cutting trees at a younger age to maximize profits. Emails obtained by the news organizations showed that OFRI’s then executive director worked diligently behind the scenes to paint the study as “faulty science,” pressuring the dean of the OSU College of Forestry to conduct a separate review of the research, although it had followed established peer-review processes accepted around the world. The institute also kept timber industry lobbyists abreast of their efforts.

OFRI leaders were afraid the OSU study would lead to restrictions on logging in Gov. Brown’s climate-change legislation. But when the bill came before the Legislature in 2019, the study’s lead researcher told reporters that state senators were citing the institute’s talking points criticizing her work. In the end, the bill exempted logging and the legislation died because Senate Republicans left the Capitol to prevent the quorum needed to pass it.

The effects of logging on the state’s carbon footprint is only one of the policy issues that OFRI sought to influence, according to the investigative report. The institute’s director also raised concerns about an OSU survey of public attitudes toward herbicide spraying on private forest lands, and OFRI spent millions of tax dollars on advertising campaigns that painted Oregon’s logging laws as more protective of water quality than they actually are.

Not only that, but institute staffers regularly attended the timber industry’s legislative strategy meetings, including one that included a preview of attack ads against Brown by a business group opposing her 2018 reelection campaign.

It’s acceptable for interested parties to disagree about the causes of climate change and the measures needed to combat it, and for industries to lobby legislators to protect their interests. What’s not acceptable is for a tax-supported agency to help a private industry by attempting to influence policy decisions on its behalf. In fact, it’s illegal.

If the audit confirms that’s what happened, the Legislature should rein in the Oregon Forest Resources Institute or dissolve in entirely. The industry tax dollars that support it would be better spent elsewhere.