Audit finds tax-funded forestry institute in Oregon misled the public and may have broken state law

This article was produced in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Oregonian / OregonLive. You can join The Oregonian / OregonLive special projects newsletter and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s newsletter. Oregon Public Broadcasting is a member of the ProPublica local reporting network.

The tax-funded Oregon Institute of Forest Education misled the public by presenting a biased view of forestry and could have broken the law by trying to influence policy, an audit found of State.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute, established by lawmakers in 1991 to provide credible public education based on facts and reliable science, operates with broad authority and almost no oversight, undermining its public interest and credibility, according to the audit. released Wednesday by the Secretary of State. .

The auditors found that the agency “has long engaged in activities which may not fall under its statutory authority”. They wrote that their findings “reasonably raise the question” of whether OFRI broke the law, which bars the agency from attempting to influence the actions of any other public body. But lawmakers should seek formal legal advice, auditors said.

“There is clearly a disconnect between the mandate of OFRI and what the evidence shows about how they behave,” Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, said in an interview.

Governor Kate Brown requested the audit last year in response to an investigation by The Oregonian / OregonLive, OPB and ProPublica. News organizations, which obtained thousands of records including emails from OFRI leaders, discovered that the agency sought to discredit climate scientists and was functioning de facto as a lobbying and public relations arm for the wood industry.

The investigation found that OFRI for years advertised that Oregon’s logging laws were strong, although many became weaker than in neighboring states. Its executive directors have participated in private industry deliberations on political attack advertisements. The investigation also showed how the agency worked to discredit academic scientists, including Oregon State University professor Beverly Law, who published research in 2018 showing significant carbon emissions. from logging.

State auditors called the agency’s “strained relationship” with scientists “a continuing concern.”

While the agency presents itself as objective, listeners said, its annual million-dollar television advertising campaign and investigative efforts to track Oregon residents’ opinions on logging “suggest that the agency strives to change the attitudes and opinions of the public to favor the industry, rather than objective information.

“The agency cannot reasonably claim that all of its messages and publications are objective or fairly represent the impacts of forest management practices,” the auditors wrote.

The auditors recommended that the Oregon legislature rewrite the agency’s governing statutes to clarify prohibitions on influencing legislation, add board members who are not affiliated with logging companies, and create an oversight that ensure the dissemination of accurate and reliable information.

“The audit clearly shows that the Legislative Assembly and the agency itself must take action to address the gaps and conflicts of interest inherent in the OFRI structure,” said Charles Boyle, spokesperson of the governor. “State agencies should provide objective information to the public, and we expect the agency and lawmakers to put measures in place to ensure that OFRI does not engage in political advocacy. “

Boyle said Brown will work with lawmakers during the short February session to determine needed changes to the law that governs OFRI. Brown has little direct power over the agency’s board of directors, which is legally controlled by medium and large timber producers.

In a written response to the audit, agency director Erin Isselmann agreed to implement the auditors’ recommendations by the end of 2022. Isselmann said OFRI would adopt a clear mission statement , collaborate with environmental groups and develop policies to ensure that agency employees do not come up against laws prohibiting lobbying.

Isselmann rejected some of the main findings of the audit, including OFRI’s lack of transparency and the fact that the law that created the agency undermined its public interest.

“Supporting and enhancing the Oregon forest products industry through forestry education programs and educational materials for the general public, K-12 teachers and students, and forest owners is important. for the people of Oregon because of the many social, environmental and economic benefits that forests provide to the state and all Oregonians, ”she wrote.

Isselmann did not respond to questions from journalists. OFRI spokesperson Inka Bajandas did not respond to questions about why the agency told auditors the work would take more than a year, saying in a statement that the work to put them implementation had already started.

Kip Memmott, the secretary of state’s director of audits, said in an interview that the institute was created with so few controls that taxpayer dollars and the reputation of the state government were put at risk.

“These are public money. This is a state agency, ”Memmott said. “With a state seal putting information in the public domain, there is a higher responsibility to ensure that it is objective. “

Over the years, lawmakers reduced taxes on the lumber industry that helped fund local governments and schools. Tax cuts have cost Oregon cities about $ 3 billion over the past three decades, according to a news agency survey. Isselmann said the industry should be allowed to decide how one of the few remaining taxes it pays should be used.

“Denying industry the right to determine how these funds are to be spent to support their industry is not only unfair, but would undermine confidence in the ability of government to allocate resources impartially,” Isselmann wrote.

While the Oregon legislature sets the budgets for most state agencies every two years, OFRI sets its own budget. Under state law, timber representatives make up OFRI’s board of directors. An isolated non-voting member of the public is prohibited from having any connection with any group or business “known to support or promote environmental or conservation issues.” Auditors pointed to the ban as a risk to the agency’s credibility and recommended expanding board representation.

Industry lobbyists have compared OFRI to the Oregon Farm Commodity Commissions which raise money from farmers to promote wheat, grass, berries and other crops grown by the state. . These commissions are not state agencies, and yet receive more oversight than OFRI because they are overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, according to the state audit.

During the legislative session that ended in June, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill that would have redirected part of the OFRI budget to the Oregon Department of Forests for projects including climate research in forests and education of small family forest owners on state logging laws. The measure failed in the Senate.

Lumber industry lobbyists and other agency supporters have urged lawmakers to wait for the audit before taking action. The Oregon Forest & Industries Council told lawmakers in May that “to skip the audit findings and drastically dismantle OFRI would be incredibly irresponsible.”

After the audit was published, council spokesperson Sara Duncan said her group had “serious concerns” about the reasons for the audit and disagreed with many of its findings. .

“Much of the report appears entirely outside the scope of the stated audit objectives and includes unrelated, biased and politically motivated opinions on the contributions of our sector,” Duncan said.

When asked to provide examples, Duncan did not respond.

Senator Michael Dembrow, a Democrat from Portland who was implicated in the failure of negotiations over the institute’s future during the legislative session, said he expects a hearing on the results of the audit in the fall.

Lawmakers will have to choose whether to transform OFRI into an agency that provides a credible and balanced view of logging in Oregon or to eliminate it altogether, Dembrow said.

“I’m not sure, to be frank, that in what form I would like it to be, the industry would want this to continue,” Dembrow said.

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