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Oregon lags in environmental protection as state’s Democratic leaders do little to help

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Oregon lags in environmental protection as state’s Democratic leaders do little to help

May 29, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Daniel Robertson
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Oregon lags in environmental protection as state’s Democratic leaders do little to help
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A majority of Oregonians say the environment should be given priority over economic growth, 2021 survey shows. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

Despite our green reputation, Oregon lags far behind other Western states when it comes to environmental protection, and Oregon Democratic leaders are doing little to make it better. 

A raft of unfortunate recent headlines prove the point.

Earlier this month, fish and wildlife officials said three wolves, two golden eagles and one mountain lion were all poisoned in the latest episode of what has become an epidemic of poaching. Residents in Morrow County have been forced to endure toxic drinking water after state regulators fell asleep at the wheel and let corporate agriculture interests pollute the groundwater. Amid a global extinction crisis, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has decided that trapping and trucking endangered salmon around dams is the same as fixing those dams to allow fish to freely navigate their homewaters.

Even the most high-profile recent improvements to Oregon’s environmental laws, the sweeping updates to private forest standards called the Private Forest Accord, took the threat of a ballot measure to enact. 

What happened to the Oregon that pioneered environmental protection?

The explanation is clearly not due to voters demanding dirty water and dying salmon runs. The Oregon Values and Beliefs Survey found in 2021 that 77% of Oregonians said that protection of the environment should be given priority over economic growth, making protecting our forests, wildlife, clean air and clean water. Still, Oregon’s elected officials, including Democratic leaders, view land, wildlife and water not as state treasures but as trading stock for cutting deals. Today’s leaders behave more like Joe Manchin than Tom McCall. Manchin is the U.S. Democratic senator from West Virginia who’s blocked bills on renewable energy while McCall, Oregon’s legendary former governor, was a big supporter of Oregon’s landmark bottle bill. 

Despite the Oregon logging lobby having a terrible history with steep-slope clear-cutting, toxic aerial chemical sprays and huge campaign contributions to far-right candidates and causes, Democratic leaders often look to curry favor with them by blocking legislation to strengthen environmental protections or appointing their political allies to key legislative committees and citizen commissions.

This sort of cynical politics was on display recently when Gov. Tina Kotek was set to nominate Heath Curtiss, a professional lobbyist for a logging company,, to the Board of Forestry until conservation groups pushed back. Curtiss works for Hampton Lumber, a company with a vested interest in weak state forest logging rules. The Board of Forestry writes and oversees those rules.

It’s bad enough that Kotek would think to reward this particular company with a board seat given that Hampton Lumber donated $250,000 to her opponent, Betsy Johnson, in the 2022 gubernatorial election. While that is bizarre, more troubling is that the governor somehow thinks that a lobbyist for a logging company will be able to represent the Oregon public and not the financial interests of his employer.

Oregonians should be even more frustrated that the governor side-swiped a nomination for another prospective Board of Forestry member, Bob Van Dyk, when conservation advocates rightly opposed the logging lobbyist. Instead of thanking wildlife and clean water advocates for blowing the whistle, she pulled the nomination for a better qualified candidate – someone whose values on the environment actually align with the voters who put Kotek in office.

It’s painful to watch Oregon’s elected leaders stumble around on environmental policy when problems like climate change, extinction crisis, polluted groundwater are so urgent. It’s unclear where Kotek will go next with Board of Forestry appointments, not to mention important upcoming appointments to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

What should be clear is that the environmentally minded voters who supported her in 2022 and helped her overcome the millions of dollars logging companies and other far-right entities spent trying to defeat her, didn’t vote for this.

 

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