Two years ago, when we first began our analysis of Western Oregon’s private forests, I had no clear idea where it would lead. Like our prior federal lands work, where we were almost alone in correctly arguing that the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) will be the timber industry’s attack point, our work on Wall Street investor forest ownership began as a lonely enterprise.
For over twenty years, I have reported on the timber industry and mill owning elite’s efforts to undermine local tax revenues in order to force federal officials into abandoning the Northwest Forest Plan. And as I reported in July, our new work reveals the astounding scale of the timber
industry’s self-serving tax avoidance. We have now documented key taxation facts that provide
a clearer picture of the forest product industry’s overall strategy. Your continued support will provide the resources for us to make the truth known and change public policy. The first round of community presentations has sharpened our story and provided invaluable feedback. We have a buzz going about forest taxation–now it’s time to create expertly produced materials and media
and reach a wide audience. Your support today will help make that possible.
During the 1990s, Oregon’s anti-property tax movement achieved a 3% annual cap on property taxes (Ballot Measure 5). Entwined with the property tax revolt was the timber industry’s own
out-of-sight efforts to lower their taxes. First they convinced state leaders to end the severance tax on trees harvested. Then they engineered a new land valuation scheme (Ballot Measure 50) that, when combined with ending the severance tax, resulted in an 84% reduction in forest owner payments to local government. People are shocked to learn this fact.
Recently, we discovered new information
that builds our case. For example, while all restaurants and other small businesses pay a personal property tax on equipment, all logging equipment purchased after 1992 is tax exempt. In addition, the corporate timber giants that export timber do not pay state income tax on profits from their export sales. That’s right–the state rewards corporations for sending logs overseas! As I said in our July newsletter – the facts are astounding.
The Crisis of County Revenue
So, what does the 84% reduction in timber industry property taxes mean for heavily forested
rural counties? Here’s one example: On Nov. 14th the Eugene Register Guard reported that Lincoln County paid a $2.85 million settlement to the family of a man who died in the Lincoln County Jail. Autopsy results indicated the man suffered from “significant dehydration”–which means he died of thirst. Jail staff knew he was severely mentally ill, yet the night he died staff saw the man lying naked on the floor in his cell, and did nothing. He was found dead the next morning. After the court settlement the family’s attorney said “This case shows there is a price to pay when jails treat the mentally ill as disposable.”
The Lincoln County case presents many questions: Why is the county jail the intake facility for
the severely mentally ill? Why are local public spaces and public forests across Oregon’s rural counties littered with the homeless? A stream survey worker recently told me “I never have seen so many homeless campsites and as much campsite trash along the river as I did this year.” Or, why has Douglas County closed its library system due to a lack of revenue when the county consists of vast tracts of profitable private forest land?
Big timber and the mill owning elite, the folks that own over 80% of all private forestland in
most Western Oregon counties, are saying that adequate county revenue will only result from clearcutting federal forests and not because they are going to pay taxes like everyone else.
Oregon’s rural social chaos has, in large part, been engineered by big timber and the millionaire and billionaire mill owners toward one purpose–further enrich the few and break the Northwest Forest Plan. The mill owners want cheap logs and Wall Street’s timberland owners want more profits through tax avoidance. Meanwhile, the public gets a chaotic social landscape and an environmental mess. I have news for the timber industry–Oregon’s rural poor, the homeless, struggling working folks and rural communities are not disposable.
The BLM Lawsuit
On November 12th the Coast Range Association and eight other groups filed a lawsuit challenging the BLM’s Western Oregon forest plan. The lawsuit is built around the BLM’s abandonment of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS). In addition, the brief argues that federal agencies responsible for endangered species protection failed to provide valid scientific justification for approving the new plan. Why? Because the previous four years of CRA work defending the science behind the ACS established there was not sufficient science behind abandoning the ACS!
I quote the legal brief: “For years, the NWFP has set the management standards, guidelines, and objectives for U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands in the Pacific Northwest. While BLM has the ability to adopt new management rules for its districts, the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) requires BLM to analyze the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of a decision to secede from the NWFP on the federal lands that remain under the NWFP. BLM failed to do so here.
“Nor can the expert biological agencies, the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”), review the revised RMPs without acknowledging their own previous factual findings that the ACS remains the best available science and their conclusions that compliance with the ACS is necessary to avoid jeopardy and adverse modification of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The challenged biological opinions do not explain the reversal of expert agency opinion that the mandatory ACS objectives are necessary to fulfill the ESA’s requirements.”
There you have it: The BLM, NMFS and the FWS didn’t justify the new plan because they knew there wasn’t valid science. All three agencies had read the CRA sponsored Science Panel report, made possible by your donations, in 2015 and knew better. So, they just dropped the ACS, opened the land base to much greater timber cutting, and pretended everything was legal. The agencies are clearly in violation of federal law. Our attorneys (Earth-justice and Western Environmental Law) are asking for a summary judgement based on the planning documents (or lack thereof).
Where are we going?
So, what is our demand for changing the private-public forest regime? Should we work solely
for forest practices reform? Or, given climate change and the known role forests can play in sequestering carbon, must we make demands adequate to the times? I believe the latter is required. Given climate change, Oregon’s forests must store all the carbon possible. For federal lands, this means no longer managing the last, big primary forests as timberland but, instead, managing them as carbon reserves. That demand is increasingly warranted by each day’s news.
For the millions of acres of corporate forestlands managed on short, financially efficient cutting cycles, bold proposals are required to sequester carbon, protect drinking water, ensure human health and provide habitat for species pushed to the brink by climate change.
Essential to any future private forest strategy is the need to break the silence of Oregon’s political leaders about corporate forest management and tax avoidance. Secondly, Wall Street’s short-term profit horizon is absolutely the wrong way to manage a Northwest forest. Older, larger private forests are needed and that kind of forest is something Wall Street absolutely cannot accomplish. Nothing has to be invented here – only Wall Street finance stands in the way.
The facts the CRA has compiled are astounding, the case we can make is compelling. To date, the CRA has been almost alone in building the big picture indictment of Wall Street forestry. We were right about the ACS in defending the Northwest Forest Plan. And we are right about the industry’s private-public forest strategy of tax avoidance, social crisis and public lands exploitation.
I believe it’s time to demand that Oregon no longer subsidize and welcome the Wall Street ownership of our private forests. We must insist on fair and equal taxation. Financial forestry with its pesticide spraying, salmon habitat destruction and forest loss must end. But first, the truth must become known. Your generous donation today will help make that possible. A better world is possible if we work together.
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