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A loader-operator lifts logs into a truck at a harvest site. Oregon lawmakers are considering whether to eliminate two-thirds of the budget for a controversial forestry education institute.

SALEM — Critics of a controversial Oregon forestry education program again want to slash its funding by two-thirds, which its defenders characterize as a mistimed overreach.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute would be prohibited from conducting general public advertising under House Bill 3019, while most of its $4 million annual budget would be redirected to firefighting and environmental literacy efforts.

“HB 3019 will right-size OFRI and ensure a measure of accountability for the agency so that it can’t slip back into some of its troublesome past practices,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of the Oregon Wild environmental group.

In 2021, the House approved a bill that would have eliminated most of the institute’s funding after it came under fire for allegedly trying to influence timber laws and regulations contrary to its charter.

Controversy also erupted over OFRI’s advertising, based on criticism that it promoted the timber industry’s agenda while ignoring the environmental community’s perspective.

Earlier legislation cutting OFRI’s budget ultimately died in the Senate without receiving a floor vote, but the new proposal’s supporters argue the case for reform is even stronger in 2023.

After the earlier bill failed to pass muster, state auditors recommended that lawmakers overhaul OFRI’s governing statute to improve its objectivity and transparency.

Last year, lawmakers also passed a legislative package that implemented the Private Forest Accord, a compromise between timber and environmental groups meant to strengthen logging regulations.

That legislation included assistance for small forestland owners that rendered some of OFRI’s outreach and education “redundant,” Stevens said.

Even so, the agency still outlays “inflated” and “inappropriate” sums for advertising, he said during a recent legislative hearing.

“It is just a little ironic that OFRI is spending hundreds of thousands promoting the new Private Forest Accord logging laws, when for three decades it spent millions of dollars misleading Oregonians that our laws were strong and did not require modernization,” he said.

Beverly Law, a retired Oregon State University forestry professor, urged lawmakers to pass HB 3019, claiming that OFRI had tried to suppress her research because the findings were inconvenient to the timber industry.

The state would be better off investing in science-based education rather than “misinformation” and “disinformation,” Law said. “OFRI has a history of twisting sound science.”

Other supporters of HB 3019 emphasized the bill wasn’t intended to be punitive, since the agency is under new leadership and is implementing the audit recommendations.

The legislation is simply meant to tailor OFRI’s funding to its mission and provide a more balanced representation of viewpoints by expanding its board of directors, supporters say.

“It keeps them honest and makes sure they stay on the right track,” said Julia DeGraw, coalition director for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

However, the bill’s opponents said that such a steep budget cut would effectively upend the agency’s operations, despite progress made since the audit.

“In no way does it right-size them and allow them to perform its core function,” said Fran Cafferata, a wildlife biologist and forestry consultant.

The sharp funding decrease, coupled with restrictions on OFRI’s communications, would impede the agency’s mission of educating Oregonians on forestry’s importance, said Mike Barsotti, a small forestland owner near Lyons, Ore.

“It cannot carry out its legislative mandate without its full funding,” he said.

Opponents of HB 3019 point out that OFRI is financially sustained by the timber industry’s self-imposed taxes, not general fund dollars, and only 17% of its budget is dedicated to media campaigns.

“The bill guts what is effectively the forest industry’s commodity commission,” said Betsy Earls, public affairs manager for the Weyerhaeuser timber company.

The bill’s timing is particularly inopportune, since OFRI will play a critical role in helping forestland owners understand changing logging rules under the Private Forest Accord, opponents say.

“It’s a classic non-solution in search of a problem,” particularly since the agency is now publicizing practices supported by the environmental community, said Mike Eliason, government affairs director for the Oregon Forest Industries Council.

The prohibition against public advertising would prevent Oregon residents from learning about the Private Forest Accord, he added. “To not want that promoted is puzzling to us, to say the least.”

Further revisions to forestry rules are looming under planned “habitat conservation plans” to protect threatened and species on state-owned and private forestlands, making OFRI’s mission even more relevant, opponents say.

Forestry regulations in general are “important but they’re nearly incomprehensible without a translator,” said Kate McMichael, a small forestland owner near Vida, Ore.

“Please don’t take OFRI away from us or from our forests,” she said.

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