Several timber companies participated in a workgroup and proposal that would cut the fees they pay to the state for fire protection.

By Alex Baumhardt / January 10, 2024

Timber companies appear to have played an influential role in a new legislative proposal to find sustainable funding for fighting wildfires. If passed, it could save the industry millions of dollars in fees they now pay to the state for fire protection and shift more of the cost to all Oregon property owners.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, will present the proposal on Wednesday morning to the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Committee for consideration during the session. It would impose a $10 fee on all property holders in Oregon to pay for fighting wildfires, raising an estimated $20 million a year, about 15% of the projected total cost for wildfire protection in 2024. The proposal would reduce the per-acre fees that private and public forest and range landowners now pay to the Oregon Department of Forestry for protection.

Fighting wildfires has grown significantly more expensive in the last few years, and the state’s general fund has absorbed much of the excess cost, along with landowners who’ve seen their fees to the forestry department rise. State leaders such as Steiner, who is now running for treasurer, are trying to find new sources of wildfire money to relieve pressure on private landowners – primarily east Oregon ranchers without billions in timber holdings – and the general fund, which pays for other major state investments in mental health, addiction and housing. A proposal by another lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, would tax timber harvests.

Critics of Steiner’s proposal say it shifts the costs of protecting billions of dollars in private timber assets away from the companies that own much of the land at risk to average Oregonians. They’re also concerned about the membership of a secretive workgroup Steiner convened to help develop the proposal and a lack of transparency around who was allowed to participate in discussions and planning.

Three of the 11 members of the workgroup – whose names Steiner’s office provided after multiple requests from the Capital Chronicle – are employed by industrial timber companies, including one of the world’s largest, Weyerhaeuser. A fourth participant works for the state’s largest timber industry association: the Oregon Forest Industries Council.

A document outlining the proposal from Steiner’s office indicated it was written by a Weyerhaeuser lobbyist: Her name was shown as the author in the file’s metadata, which includes basic information about the history of a document. That lobbyist, Betsy Earls, told the Capital Chronicle she only edited it. She said she copied a document written by Gov. Tina Kotek’s wildfire advisor, Doug Grafe, and edited parts to make it understandable to an audience without a forestry background. Steiner also said Grafe was the key author.

The governor’s office was vague.

“Doug Grafe provided technical support to the workgroup,” Anca Matica, a Kotek spokesperson, said in an email when asked whether Grafe was the main author, or among the main authors.

Steiner did not explain why more than one-third of the workgroup represented the industrial timber industry, including companies and groups that recently donated to her campaign for state treasurer.

When working on proposals, lawmakers often consult various interested parties.

Lobbyists often try to influence legislation, and they are allowed to write and contribute to proposals, according to the nonprofit think tank Center for Public Policy. But experts say when that involvement is secret it obscures who is behind a policy.

Steiner’s office shared Earls’ copy, not Grafe’s original document, as did senior officials at the Oregon Department of Forestry, according to a Capital Chronicle review of interagency emails about the proposals.

The timber industry often gets involved when it comes to proposals dealing with wildfire funding and private land, according to Mark Bennett, a member of the workgroup and a former Baker County commissioner serving on the governor’s wildfire advisory council. The cost of state protection against wildfires is usually included in conversations about timber severance taxes and harvest taxes, he said.

“The grazing folks are a small voice. We have lots of land, but a very small voice,” he said. “Historically, we’ve needed the timber industry’s voice to help us.”

Nevertheless, Jody Wiser, founder and president of the nonprofit watchdog group Tax Fairness Oregon, criticized the inclusion of large timber companies in developing a proposal meant to ease the financial burden on east Oregon ranchers.

“The forest industry, invited to develop a proposal for the Legislature, naturally exploited an opening to pay less,” she said in an email. “Its concept furthers a 30-year trend of shifting costs from forestland owners to others.”

Steiner said neither the proposal nor any related documents were written by members of the timber industry, and that it was a collaborative effort among everyone in the group, which included a representative from the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, two members of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, a forest manager for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, a Hood River County commissioner, Bennett of Baker County and the wildfire advisory committee and Jim Kelly, chair of the Oregon Board of Forestry.

Kelly declined to answer questions about the proposal but commented on the workgroup.

“The goal was to restore some relief for landowners of east Oregon rangelands, as well as forest owners of east Oregon who have less productive forests,” he told the Capital Chronicle. “The committee morphed a bit beyond that.”

Asked why the workgroup membership was kept under wraps, Tatiana Amrein, Steiner’s chief of staff, said in an email that it was to “incentivize participants to engage in problem solving in good faith, as opposed to using this as an opportunity for political grandstanding.”

Cost of wildfire protection

Wildfire protection and response costs in Oregon are generally split between private and public forest and range landowners and the state’s general fund. Costs for 2024 are projected to be about $136 million, with about 48% paid by private and public landowners. As wildfires have become more frequent and more expensive, so has the price of protection, and a convoluted system of assessing land values and risks across fire protection districts to charge per-acre fees has proven unfair, some say. An east Oregon rancher with 1,000 acres pays, on average, about $1,100 annually in per-acre fees to the forestry department for fire protection. A small forest landowner in east Oregon with 600 acres pays, on average, $1,400 annually. Those lands do not generate the same revenue, or hold the same financial value, as ranching and timber lands west of the Cascades.

The governor’s two-year budget proposal for the forestry department’s fire protection division, which she proposed last year, noted that, “landowners with the lowest production timber lands are now paying some of the highest assessments for base protection.”

Earlier this year, east and central Oregon ranchers and small forest owners told state leaders that they could not afford the rising fees – which have gone up in some areas nearly 40% in the last year – on small forest tracts or thousands of acre parcels of sagebrush that are not home to billion-dollar timber assets like those held by industrial timber companies.

Bennett, the workgroup member and former Baker County commissioner, said every ranch owner in Baker County pays more for fire protection from the state than they pay for public schools, the county’s noxious weed district and parks and recreation combined.

But instead of shifting wildfire costs away from ranchers and small forest landowners to industrial timber landowners, who own about 30% of the 16 million acres that the forestry department protects, the workgroup proposed cutting fees for range and timber landowners regardless of acreage or land value. Doing so could save all of the timber landowners and ranchers an average of $12 million a year on fees, according to a Capital Chronicle analysis of the proposal.

Ranchers could see their average per-acre fees nearly halved, while timber companies could see millions of dollars in savings collectively. Weyerhaeuser alone could save up to $1.4 million a year on the 1.6 million acres of forests it owns in Oregon, a Capital Chronicle analysis of the proposal found.

Steiner said that despite the per-acre fee reductions, Weyerhaeuser would still have to pay a $10 fee on every one of its 6,500 property tax accounts in Oregon or $65,000 per year. As of January, the company’s market value is more than $24.5 billion, up nearly 6% from last year.

The proposal also calls for updating three taxes that landowners pay annually that have not been indexed with inflation for 15 years. Doing so would raise an additional $6 million from mostly timberland owners for the wildfire funding budget, according to the proposal.

Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon said this is a necessary and long overdue tax accountability measure and should be expected.

State, gubernatorial advisers involved

Geoff Huntington, Kotek’s natural resources adviser, led the workgroup along with Grafe, Kotek’s wildfire czar; state forester Cal Mukumoto; and Robin Harkless, of Oregon Consensus, a public policy program based at Portland State University.

Besides Weyerhaeuser and the Oregon Forest Industries Council, the group included Brennan Garrelts, the vice president of Roseburg-based Lone Rock Timber Management Company and John Davis, the logging operations manager of Seattle-based Green Diamond Resources, the fifth largest timberland owner in the United States. Garrelts is also chair of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Emergency Fire Cost Committee.

Earls was not part of the group, but she told the Capital Chronicle she attended one meeting during which Steiner and Grafe asked members to edit a version of the proposal to be shared with constituents. She said she created a new document from Grafe’s proposal, edited it and gave that to Erik Lease, Weyerhaeuser’s representative on the workgroup. Earls joined the meeting because Lease could not attend due to a family conflict, she said.

The two documents have similar information, but Earls’ version characterizes the state’s wildfire funding system as being pushed to a breaking point, and notes that changes must be made to reduce pressure on landowners who would sell their properties. Earls said in a phone call that the landowners she was referring to were the east Oregon ranchers and forestland owners, not the industrial timberland owners.

“A core part of my job is to communicate with elected officials and their staffs about our perspective on issues important to our company and industry,” Earls said in an email.

Campaign contributions

The workgroup began regularly meeting every other week in September.

Several weeks after the first meetings, on Sept. 20, Steiner received a $4,000 campaign contribution from the Oregon Forest Industries Council Political Action Committee. Weyerhaeuser is a regular contributor to the PAC – it donated $10,000 to it in November – as is Lone Rock, which also contributed $10,000 in November.

On Dec. 18, while the workgroup was still hammering out its proposal, Steiner’s campaign received a $1,000 donation directly from Weyerhaeuser. The company also contributed to seven other lawmakers last year, including four Republicans and three Democrats. Senate President Rob Wagner, a Democrat, was one of the recipients.

Nick Haskins, Steiner’s manager for her treasurer campaign, said that donation was one of many she received between September and the end of December.
“Senator Steiner received contributions from a wide range of individuals and organizations in the span of time cited in your email,” Haskins said in an email.

Steiner did not receive any other Weyerhaeuser contributions while serving in the Oregon Senate from 2011 to 2019. She received her first from the company in September of 2020, shortly after becoming co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Ways & Means Committee. She remains co-chair of the committee.

Since 2022, Steiner has also received $4,000 from another timber fundraiser, Orloggers PAC, including a $2,000 donation in early 2023.

Another proposal

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, will also be proposing wildfire funding legislation to take some financial pressure off of east Oregon ranchers and the state’s general fund. But instead of turning to the public to make up the difference, Golden wants industrial timber companies to pick up a larger share of the costs.

He’ll propose that lawmakers approve a ballot measure to go to Oregon voters. If passed, it would impose a tax on the value of timber harvested on private land, much like the former timber severance tax that was removed in the early 1990s. The tax would be higher depending on the acreage that each company holds, so a small timber operation wouldn’t pay the same rate as a company like Weyerhaeuser.

Golden previously told the Capital Chronicle that imposing a timber value tax could bring the forestry department and local fire districts tens of millions of dollars annually for wildfire prevention, response and responding to threats from climate change.

“There is a segment of the timber industry that’s more than able to shoulder more of the load, and when we think about the protection that they get from ODF, they should be picking up more of the baggage here,” Golden said.

FEATURED IMAGE: Fighting wildfires has grown significantly more expensive in the last few years, and the state’s general fund has absorbed much of the excess cost, along with landowners who’ve seen their fees to the forestry department rise. (Oregon Department of Forestry)