Clearcut Kings Killed the Climate Bill

HB 2020 wasn’t perfect, but the unholy alliance of logging barons, militia groups, and anti-environmental politicians that killed it should be deeply disturbing to all Oregonians.

Back in 2010, when Congress was debating the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), the opponents of the legislation had a problem. The things actually in the bill (slowing the inflation of health care costs, providing more access to health care, ensuring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions) were very popular with Americans. So the healthcare reform opponents attacked things that were never actually in the bill, like “death panels,” and launched a massive media and PR campaign to pretend they were.

The corrupt swamp-monster politics of Trump and Washington DC arrived in Oregon this session, most visibly in the death of HB 2020, the Clean Energy Jobs Act that was just killed in the Oregon State Senate. Most Oregonians want our state to act to address climate change.  They want more investment in renewable energy and in cleaner vehicles, and a transition to less-pollution from industrial facilities.  They also want to see Oregon’s forests, rivers, and wildlife protected (and logging is our state’s largest source of carbon emissions--more on that later).  They wanted these things badly enough to vote for a “super majority” in the 2018 elections in order to achieve them.

Clatsop County OregonI have to say up front that Oregon Wild was not a major player in the debate over HB 2020, right up until the waning months of the legislative session. Our work focuses primarily on protecting and restoring public lands, forests, wildlife, and rivers. The campaigners behind HB 2020 made a strategic decision early on to exempt logging emissions from the bill. By doing this, they hoped to avoid the ire of “King Clearcut” -- the circle of logging barons, logging corporations, chemical industry lobbyists, and the Oregon Forest Industries Council (OFIC) -- that funnels hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican and Democratic politicians every year.  

Getting on the wrong side of King Clearcut is viewed as the kiss of death in Salem politics, and by exempting logging emissions the bill’s backers hoped to avoid being targeted by Oregon’s clearcut lobby.

But as the 2019 legislative session drug on, this became increasingly difficult. First, some in the logging industry began demanding credit for the carbon being captured and stored by forests on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land recovering from the clearcutting epidemic of the 1980s and early ‘90s. They also wanted credit for simply replanting forests on private lands they clearcut (a thing that has been legally required in Oregon since the 1970s). The whole point of climate legislation is to improve things over the status quo, so neither made any sense (particularly since King Clearcut refused to consider the giant carbon debt that occurs every time a forest is logged).

Others in the logging lobby tried to push fake science, claiming that forest fires were a bigger source of carbon than clearcutting (they are not); that 2x4s, construction materials, and paper products store more carbon that living forests (they don’t); and that dense, 30-year-old industrial logging plantations (“tree farms”) store more carbon than 200+-year-old old-growth forest (also not true). The reality is that logging is Oregon’s largest source of carbon emissions (dwarfing fire), and that better logging practices (restoring old-growth, longer logging rotations, fewer clearcuts) is the biggest single step our state can take to address climate change.

Not all logging interests were pushing fake science and climate denial. Some quietly weighed in to support HB 2020, hoping to sell carbon credits to industrial polluters under the “cap and trade” program the bill would create.  If landowners go to longer logging rotations, thinning instead of clearcutting, or agreements not to log at all, more carbon is stored. This creates a potential offset for carbon emissions from industrial polluters (though it doesn’t do much to protect clean air or the health of people living downwind from those facilities).

In the end, this didn’t matter.  As the session began to wind down, some of Oregon’s wealthiest logging barons (led by Andrew Miller, funder of Bundy-believing politicians and a wide variety of right-wing causes). Rob Freres (who Oregon Wild battled to protect Opal Creek from clearcutting in the 1990s), came out against the bill and began urging Republicans and anti-environmental Democrats to oppose it. In response, Sen. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) added his -113 amendment, which specifically barred Oregon landowners from selling carbon credits instead of logging.

It wasn’t enough. Miller and Freres, the clearcut kings, launched a major PR and media campaign saying the bill would regulate logging (it wouldn’t), that it would drive up fuel prices for loggers, farmers and truckers (a companion bill actually gave them new fuel subsidies), and that it would ruin rural economies (when economic studies said it would do the opposite). They told these lies to the media, to their employees, and to legislators, and launched their “#timberunity” log truck rally in Salem to promote them. They weaponized misinformation and told rural Oregonians to boycott businesses that support climate action.

That the entire campaign was based on lies didn’t seem to matter. Employees of logging companies were encouraged to come to Salem, and company owners sent their log trucks and tractors. Television news ran images of diesel log trucks rolling through Salem and angry speakers decrying HB 2020 as a ban on logging (while largely ignoring the presence of III% militia members, believers in the violent “sovereign citizen” movement, and white nationalists in the crowd). Some media outlets responded to criticism of inaccurate stories with bland statements of “we are just covering what they are saying.”

Just as in 2010, when a PR campaign firmly established the idea that “death panels” were actually a thing in the Affordable Care Act, the “#timberunity” rally (more accurately “#timbertantrum”) firmly established the idea that HB 2020 had provisions in it that restricted logging. The pressure worked, and after three anti-environment Democrats made it known they were siding with Oregon’s runaway Republicans against the bill and action on climate change, it died.

So what is Oregon to learn from this mess? For one, it is high time that elected officials and environmental campaigners all recognize that the clearcut kings of Oregon, right-wing donors like Freres and Miller, have no interest in solving environmental problems. Men who argued in favor of clearcutting the ancient forests of Opal Creek and who fund the campaigns of anti-public lands, anti-immigrant, anti-worker politicians are not going to stay neutral on climate legislation, or any other major progressive campaign in Oregon.

Second, Oregon is literally being flooded with corporate political money, and that money is corrupting our state’s politics -- particularly on the environment.  As the Oregonian’s Polluted by Money series documented, our state has some of the weakest campaign finance rules in the country, and politicians have thus far been unable to produce a plan that would effectively combat the corrupting influence of money in our politics.

Per capita, Oregon ranks #1 in the nation when it comes to campaign contributions from corporations, and #1 in contributions from the logging industry (over double Washington and California). That money buys access, power, and favors--all of which were on display when the Republican Senators abandoned their jobs in order to block a vote on climate legislation, and when 3 anti-environment Democrats joined them. Oregon desperately needs campaign finance reform to rein in the nearly unlimited money currently coming from polluting corporations.

Finally, Oregon has to get serious about addressing our weakest-in-the-west logging rules on state and private lands. Logging barons have made millions clearcutting our forests, leaving Oregonians (rural and urban alike) to foot the bill from mudslides and polluted drinking water,  degraded salmon runs, and an ongoing endangered species crisis. They have also exposed rural families to cancer-causing chemicals, and blocked important legislation to protect health and safety.  

Worse, state regulators can’t even say with certainty if most logging operations are even meeting our existing weak rules.

Everyone in Oregon uses wood products, but they don’t have to come from clearcuts. All of us (urban and rural alike) want a clean, healthy environment.  We all value old-growth forests, salmon runs, and clean water. We want meaningful action to address climate change.  After the death of HB 2020, it is clearer than ever that we cannot have those things unless all of us work to stand up to Oregon’s clearcut kings, and the lies and misinformation they spread. 

Photo Credits: 
III%ers via Tim Dicksenson, cartoon via Springer Creative (https://www.springercreative.com/)