Struggling county spends safety net cash on pro-timber video
Posted September 29
PORTLAND, Ore. — The six-minute video opens to ominous music and burning trees. After the flames are out, a narrator says, forests suffer from devastating neglect, turning into a "vast sea of dead, charred trees" that aren't reforested because of a maze of confusing, contradictory environmental regulations.
The music brightens as the answer appears: Salvage logging. The video concludes by urging viewers to call their elected officials "and tell them these federal lands... are too valuable to simply walk away."
The clip credits a tiny nonprofit called Communities for Healthy Forests and went online in early September, a day before Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden introduced a bill to harvest trees burned this summer in the Columbia River Gorge. Timber companies support the plan.
It's become routine for cryptically named interest groups to push changes in federal policy that industry wants. The surprising twist this time: Federal money paid for it.
Douglas County, a local government so broke it closed all its public libraries earlier this year, funded Communities for Healthy Forests to create the video. And it did so with federal safety net money meant to ease rural Oregon's dependence on timber revenue.
Commissioners have awarded Communities for Healthy Forests a total of $490,000 in federal money over the last two years, $250,000 of it to make videos. Only one has been released.
The Douglas County commission's spending raises questions about a federal program called Secure Rural Schools, which has suffered from a lack of oversight since it was co-authored in 2000 by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.
The program gives counties part of what they once earned from logging on federal land before endangered species listings curtailed the harvest. Oregon has received $3 billion, more than any other state.
Most of the federal money goes to roads and schools. But counties have wider leeway over a portion known as Title III, which was funded at $14.3 million nationally in 2015.
Chris Boice, chairman of the Douglas County commission, said the pro-salvage logging video counted as "education related to forestry." That's a use that Congress authorized for money received before 2008. Boice said the county had pre-2008 dollars on hand to pay Communities for Healthy Forests in 2015 and 2016.
But even back when education was an allowed purpose, the law said money could only be spent on after-school programs.
The cash the county awarded Communities for Healthy Forests instead could have been used to boost the county's wildfire preparedness or pay firefighting costs, purposes allowed by Title III since it was created.
Internal and external audits have repeatedly found Title III money misspent over the last decade and urged reform. But all the recommended changes haven't been adopted.
Wyden, who wants Congress to reauthorize the program, said counties should be using the economic lifeline wisely to meet rural Oregonians' essential needs. In a statement, he said what The Oregonian/OregonLive found in Douglas County would spur him to ensure counties are held accountable for their spending if the program is renewed.
"A single dollar of Title III payments should not be wasted rehashing decades-old debates and siphoning taxpayer money away from its prescribed purpose of protecting our communities from wildfires," Wyden said.
Douglas County, the heart of Oregon timber country, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries under Title III, receiving $4.3 million between 2010 and 2015.
The county gave Title III money to Communities for Healthy Forests to develop videos criticizing federal forest policy, revamp its hacked website, educate school kids and send the nonprofit's workers to conferences. A former county commissioner, Doug Robertson, worked for the group in 2015, records show.
Javier Goirigolzarri, executive director of Communities for Healthy Forests, said he was "totally unaware" that Walden's salvage logging bill would land a day after the salvage logging video was released. A Walden spokesman declined comment.
A Portland nonprofit called Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities helped the video get seen with postings on its website and Facebook page. That nonprofit shares a mailing address with the American Forest Resource Council, a major timber industry lobbying group.
Since then, the film has been viewed 94,000 times on Facebook and sent to federal elected officials by Tom Partin, the council's former president and now lobbyist, according to an email obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Partin didn't respond to a request for comment.
Goirigolzarri said other video topics will include the health impacts from wildfire air pollution and how increasing logging and thinning in federal forests can minimize fires. Eight other Oregon counties have funded the nonprofit, Goirigolzarri said: Deschutes, Klamath, Lake, Josephine, Grant, Curry, Jackson and Harney.
"Given our fuel conditions in these federal lands — we have a blanket of fuel — it's difficult to trust that wildfire will give us desired effects," Goirigolzarri said. "Whereas if we take some action on the ground, we can allow wildfire to improve conditions."
The county has spent discretionary safety net money for other purposes that are hard to reconcile with what's allowed under the federal Title III program.
It gave $71,000 to Wildlife Services, a federal animal trapping agency, for work that included killing bears and porcupines on public and private timber land. The animals eat the inner bark of Douglas fir, damaging timber crops.
Boice, the county chairman, said the grant to Wildlife Services was for educational purposes, just like the salvage logging video, in addition to supporting lethal and nonlethal methods of dealing with problem animals.
"All of our expenditures of Title III have been done within the confines of the law," Boice said.
A grant application obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive shows Wildlife Services did use the term "educate" to describe its plan to inform landowners about how black bears, porcupines, squirrels and other rodents damage timber -- and then assist in combatting the creatures, by either setting traps or providing "hands-on" training.
Statewide, the agency killed 193 bears and 13 porcupines in 2015, records show.
Wildlife Services also said in the grant application that it would use $22,000 of its county funding to maintain an ATV and other vehicles.
Congress would have to make changes to Secure Rural Schools, which is currently expired, to ensure greater scrutiny of how the money is spent.
David Bergendorf, the U.S. Forest Service's manager overseeing the program, said his agency has no legal basis to track county spending. While counties must sign a form certifying they've properly spent the money, they are not required to submit any proof.
"That's not in the law and we have to follow the law as it's written," Bergendorf said. "We can't start over-interpreting the law. Congress could certainly write that in, but they never did."
Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild, said the county's decision to fund a program benefiting private timber owners and a group that echoes industry talking points "just shows how broken the political systems in these counties are."
Groups like Communities for Healthy Forests and the American Forest Resource Council work together to achieve the same legislative outcome, Pedery said. If a Roseburg nonprofit delivers a pro-timber message in place of an industry lobbyist, he said, "suddenly it begins to sound credible."
There are other questions about the publicly funded video favoring salvage logging, apart from its eligibility for Title III funding.
Groups that receive some types of federal money are prohibited from using it to create propaganda or lobby for federal policy changes. However, it's unclear whether that restriction would apply in this case because the money first passed through the county, said Susan Gary, a University of Oregon law professor.
Boice defended the spending, saying he and his fellow commissioners thought it was important to show how much timber goes to waste after fires.
"Do you think leaving those dead and dying trees there to rot and emit harmful gas rather than removing and replanting them with young, vibrant, carbon eating seedlings is a good idea?" he asked.
Communities for Healthy Forests has not completed all the projects it proposed using Douglas County's safety-net money.
One planned film, "Burning America's Future, Squandering Our Resources," was supposed to be an hour-long investigative documentary targeting what it called "younger and more urban audiences who remain largely unaware how catastrophic wildfires are affecting the nation, and the world."
Goirigolzarri said the documentary was intended to be "PBS quality."
For reasons he did not elaborate on, Goirigolzarri said his organization ended production after the California company hired to create the picture "did not complete the necessary steps."