Fiasco in Wasco: Citizen ponies up $50K to open government

Credit: Brent Payne/Flickr

The tab will come to something like $50,000. So John “Chip” Wood sold a rental property to foot the bill. On the ticket? A lawsuit against Wasco County and its three commissioners for violations of the Oregon Public Meetings Law. It’s a story that begins in a Burgerville and ends, for now, with a protective order. Along the way it highlights all the reasons why transparency reform is failing in Oregon.

Redacted.

To hear it from Wood, the issue is this: the Wasco County Commission doesn’t play by the rules. While Oregon Public Meetings Law bars them from meeting without public notice, or deliberating on the phone or in electronic communications outside of public meetings, it hasn’t kept commissioners from making decisions over lunch, over email, and without a heads up to the public.

That part isn’t a secret. In November, the Wasco County Commission voted to remove the county from a regional public health district that’s responsible for the administration of public health laws. In other words: immunization, STD tracking, restaurant inspections, and monitoring and containing infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis, among other stuff that gets people sick or keeps people from getting sick.

The commission acted without public notice or deliberation. They simply took up this item, even though it was not on the agenda, and voted on it without any interaction with the public. The move took the community by such surprise that it provoked an outcry that caused Wood to file the lawsuit.

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Oil train bill could improve safety on rails, not on Puget Sound

Unable to escape visions of derailed oil trains burning ferociously out of control, Washington lawmakers knew it would be difficult for them to return home from Olympia this year without a new law to improve rail safety.

When Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law the legislation that resulted (HB 1449), it was far from the bill he proposed with the backing of an extraordinarily broad coalition including environmentalists, state and local governments, tribes and even river pilots.

Gone was a proposal to better protect Puget Sound from oil spills, including steps to improve safety on barges that transport oil. Also missing were Inslee’s attempt to tax oil carried in pipelines, just like oil transported over the water, and a doubling of that tax rate to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel of oil brought into the state. Inslee would have targeted the new taxes to shore up the state’s struggling oil-spill-safety budget.

“While this bill is a solid step forward, much more work needs to be done when it comes to protecting Puget Sound, funding our oil spill program and federal progress on oil-by-rail safety,” Inslee said.

When It Comes To Fish Streams, How Warm Is Too Warm?

In 2002, researchers at the Oregon Department of Forestry began a nine-year study to figure out if logging activity was warming streams. They measured stream temperatures before and after timber harvest, on public and private land.

Peter Daugherty is head of ODF's Private Forests Division. His office performed the study, with help from Oregon State University and other research partners. He explains the findings.

“Private sites, comparing pre-  to post-treatment, had a greater  frequency of exceedances,” he says.

When Daugherty says “exceedances,” he means stream temperature readings that exceeded state water quality standards. And he says streams on private timberland tended to exceed that standard a lot more often than those in state forests did.

“The probability of exceedances was 40 percent, where in all other categories, the probability of exceedances was about 5 percent.”

In fact, streams in private forests got as much as four-and-a-half degrees warmer after logging. The average increase was one and a quarter degrees. In state forests, where more streamside trees had been left, there was no increase.

Known as the RipStream study, the report has become the basis for calls to require wider buffers along streams.

Mary Scurlock is with the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition, a group of environmental and fishing industry organizations.  She says the RipStream study has pushed the Board of Forestry to consider stronger streamside protections.

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What Does the Future Hold for Oregon’s Family-Owned Forests?

Family forest landowners like Cary Renzema hold almost half of Oregon's private forestland. Photo: Ben DeJarnette 

Cary Renzema interrupts a stroll around his 50-acre forest to point out tiny purple petals peeking out from the forest floor.

“Beautiful little orchids,” Renzema says. “Once you start looking, there are hundreds of those things around here.”

For 13 years Renzema has studied this forest’s quirks and charms, explored its groves of cedar trees and patches of vine maple and wild rose about 25 miles west of Portland. Today, though, those sights are bittersweet. As part of a divorce settlement, he may have to log this second-growth forest, leaving thousands of stumps where trees have stood for three generations.

“It just hurts my heart thinking about what’s going to happen,” he says. “I’ve invested so much time and energy into this, and now I’m basically watching it all get destroyed.”

Oregon classifies Renzema and roughly 65,000 other people and companies as small forest landowners. Together they own almost half of Oregon’s private forests, a protective arboretum around the state’s farms and suburbs. But development is gnawing away. Over four decades, despite Oregon’s growth-management laws, about one out of every 20 acres of small-acreage private forest has been converted to low-density housing development. By comparison, state-owned, federal and even private industrial forests have remained relatively untouched.

For Renzema, it’s divorce. But all sorts of economic forces conspire to pressure private owners to cut their trees or sell their land. Elderly owners offload timber to pay medical bills. Children inherit forestland and prefer a quick payday to the responsibilities of timber ownership. Several years ago, a plot of family forestland along the twisting gravel road to Renzema’s property changed hands when the owners passed away. Soon most of the trees disappeared. Today a new home stands in their place. And now more lots are being subdivided nearby on land owned by a timber company.

“Death, disease, and divorce,” Renzema says. “Three things that kill forests.”

Small forest landowners, by Oregon’s classification, own from 10 to 5,000 acres. Most, like Renzema, own fewer than 100 acres. Each one has a different story.

Forests and rivers

West from Bend, east from Portland or south from Eugene, family forest landowners nestle between the valleys where people live and the long mountain ranges where most trees are federal property or owned by industrial-scale timber companies that often clearcut their forests. Located low in watersheds, many family forests have bigger streams than their upslope counterparts. These are the forests Oregonians are most likely see when they are out driving around the countryside.

And right now, that’s a bad place to be.

The Oregon Board of Forestry plans to propose new rules next month increasing the protective buffer of timber around forest streams that shelter salmon, steelhead and bull trout, species of fish protected under federal environmental law.

The Forestry Board last revamped its rules on streamside timber harvest in 1994. Those rules focused on protecting fish in the largest streams. Many of the federal protections came into effect later, as new science increasingly has shown that small and medium-sized streams also benefit from shade trees that keep water from getting so hot that it sickens or kills the fish. Plus, streamside forests filter out silt, pesticides and other pollutants from rainwater runoff, among other benefits.

Family Foresters Nervously Eye Possible New Logging Rules

Bill Arsenault has owned Paradise Creek ranch since 1971 with his wife Joan. He's done a lot of work to restore the stream after a previous owner's cattle operation damaged the banks and water quality. Credit: Liam Moriarty/JPR

The federal government has been telling Oregon for over a decade that its rules to protect threatened coastal salmon are not up to snuff. Now, the state is faced with a loss of federal dollars unless it gets with the program. In response, the Oregon Board of Forestry is weighing whether to require timberland owners to leave more trees standing along streams to better protect fish habitat. And that’s got owners of small timber lands especially worried.

In Oregon, timber holdings under 5-thousand acres are often described as “family forests,” as opposed to the large commercial forest lands owned by timber giants such as Plum Creek and Weyerhauser. And while the big guys are concerned about the possibility of new rules mandating larger forested buffers along streams, it’s the family foresters who are doing the most sweating.  

I’m standing along a lush stream bank near Elkton in Douglas County. With me is Bill Arsenault.

“This is Paradise Creek,” he says. “It drains the watershed here, about 12,000 acres.”

Bill and his wife Joan have owned this 277 acre parcel since 1971.

“It’s a large fish-bearing stream,” Arsenault says.  “We have just about everybody in here; chinook, coho, steelhead and then native cutthroat.”

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Can Carbon Markets Help Oregon's Small Forests?

A small, privately owned forest outside of Portland. Credit: Ben DeJarnette for InvestigateWest.

When cancer comes calling, what if owners of small forest plots had another choice but to sell or to cut?

That’s the premise of a pilot program being launched in Washington and Columbia counties of northwest Oregon.

Anchored by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and an $820,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Forest Health/Human Health Initiative envisions what planners call an “A-Tree-M” card for forest owners who are threatened by medical bills but don’t want to cut or sell. The source of the income: Emerging markets for sequestering planet-warming carbon dioxide.

Are they serious? Well, they trademarked “A-Tree-M.”

The idea is that family forest landowners can get cash now from cap-and-trade carbon markets like those in Europe and California, where power plants and others emitting greenhouse gases have to pay for the privilege. That money would offset polluters’ carbon emissions. For example, a forest landowner could eventually be able to commit to leaving trees on his or her land longer than is customary. If trees grow for an extra 10 years, say, they store additional carbon — carbon that remains tied up in the wood when it is harvested and turned into plywood or a table. Carbon that someone paid to store.

To participate on the scale required by current carbon markets, small forest landowners will have to aggregate their holdings and agree on how manage their lands to qualify for the payments. How this could happen is what Ecotrust, Northwest Natural Resource Group, the Oregon Forestry Department, Woodlands Carbon and L&C Carbon LLC are joining with the Pinchot Institute to figure out.

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Our sixth annual summer celebration — you're invited!

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Every year we invite the community to join us in support of the present and future of investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

This year's celebration — marking six years of stories from the InvestigateWest newsroom — will be held on June 25, starting at 5:30 p.m.

It's always a good time. Save the date and watch for more details in the coming weeks. We hope you can join us!

Please email Robert McClure at rmcclure@invw.org if you would like to contribute an item for our silent auction.

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Report: Average Black and Native American households priced out of Portland

Northeast Portland. Photo: Jason Alcorn 

Escalating housing prices are driving racial minorities and low-income people to Portland’s fringe, a new analysis of housing and income data shows. Only whites and married couples with children have median incomes high enough to withstand rising housing costs in most parts of town.

That’s the news from the city’s first State of Housing in Portland report.

The effort by the Portland Housing Bureau, submitted in a report to the Portland City Council last week, tracks Portland’s housing and rental markets alongside median earning data. The housing bureau used Census data to determine the median income of different ethnic groups, then looked at how different racial groups, nontraditional households like single mothers or seniors, and a range of income earners would fare if shopping for housing from one neighborhood to the next.

The report found renters and communities of color haven’t seen the wage growth documented economy-wide — with those gains mostly captured by whites. As housing prices and rents rise, the report shows, housing options are severely constrained for lower income households, people of color, and single mothers and seniors.

When earning median income for their Census tract, single mothers have almost no chance of renting a home with more than one bedroom in Portland. A median-income black household can’t afford to rent anything bigger than a studio apartment outside the 122nd and Division neighborhood. Median-income Native American households are limited to studio apartments in Parkrose or Cully. And very low-income people are out-priced of the private housing market across the city, the report shows.

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