Investigators Find State Timber Agency Corrupt

A year-long investigation conducted by The Oregonian/Oregon Live, OPB, and ProPublica has revealed that a tax-funded, quasi-governmental agency called the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (OFRI) has been acting as a PR agency and lobbying arm for the Oregon timber industry, violating rules set about interfering with policy.   

In 2018, Gov. Kate Brown created a bill in hopes of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The bill was backed by research published in March 2018 about how much carbon was lost to the atmosphere through the tree-cutting process in Oregon, revealing logging to be a significant contributor to climate pollution in the state.   

A research team at Oregon State University, led by forest ecologist Beverly Law, discovered that if trees on private land were cut less often the state could significantly reduce its carbon footprint. These findings came into direct opposition with a Wall Street real estate trusts and investment funds approach, in which younger trees are cut to increase profits.   

How OFRI Responded to The News  

Forest industry leaders quickly gathered following the release of Law’s study, including the OFRI, which was said to have been created to educate the public about forestry and is prohibited from influencing or attempting to influence policy.   

For months, leaders at OFRI attempted to persuade lawmakers and the dean of OSU’s College of Forestry that the research was flawed. Thousands of internal emails were found by The Oregonian/Oregon Live, OPB, and ProPublica which revealed the OFRI’s attempts to discredit Law’s research, potentially violating the restriction set in place that prohibits them from influencing policy.   

Timm Locke, the then-forest products director at OFRI, wrote in one email entitled “Bev Law carbon BS” that the institute needed to “develop a swift, fairly immediate response so that this study doesn’t drive all of the initial narrative and so that it doesn’t drive early attempts at the state level to develop carbon policy based on what appears to me to be faulty science.”  

In 2019, the institute also discussed rushing a report to try and stop ballot measures that would negatively affect logging and the timber industry.   

Erin Isselmann, OFRI’s current executive director, claims to have operated “under the highest ethical standards,” and Locke asserted in an interview that pushback against Brown’s carbon bill wasn’t an attempt to change the policy to benefit the timber industry but rather to “ensure that the policy was based on sound information.”  

Even If Lawful, It’s Just Wrong  

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, called the news organizations’ findings “deeply troubling” and expressed intention to have, at the very least, an investigation conducted by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission or the Secretary of State’s office for an audit to reveal more information.   

According to William Funk, an emeritus professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, OFRI may have been unlawful in pushing back against OSU’s research study, considering that though OFRI has the ability to educate the public on forestry, it is forbidden from influencing or attempting to influence the actions of any other state agency.   

Funk told the news organizations, “Even if lawful, it’s just wrong. The academy should rule itself. It should not be a strong-armed industry in league with a government agency.”  

Former OFRI Director Defends Actions  

Paul Barnum, the OFRI executive director at the time the study was released, called the research “of grave concern to all of us in Oregon” in an email to the American Wood Council. He then offered to use OFRI’s press release distribution service to spread an analysis by a former U.S. Forest Service employee that stated the study was inaccurate because it “underestimated emissions from wildfires and didn’t account for increased logging in other states or countries if Oregon cut fewer trees,” as reported by OPB.   

Barnum also sent this analysis to a Republican state representative who later became vice-chairman of the legislative committee negotiating Brown’s climate bill.   

Barnum later retired from the executive director position in 2018 and has stated that he believes it was not wrong for him to refute OSU’s science or other academic research, but did ultimately apologize for some inappropriate comments he made during the process.   

The Concerns Aren’t New  

This wasn’t the first time OFRI had interfered with university research. In May 2017, Barnum led pushback against a University of Oregon produced video about logging.   

In 2019, Barnum and Isselmann also pushed back against a survey released by an OSU College of Forestry professor which revealed that the Oregon public was concerned about the private timber industry’s aerial herbicide sprays. When the results were released to more than 5,000 Oregon households in April 2019, Isselmann shortly thereafter questioned the validity of the survey.   

When the carbon bill hit the floor in 2019 and ultimately died due to 11 Senate Republicans walking out of the state Capitol, OFRI remained silent.   

When the Legislature adjourned however, the institute began its own research report to study carbon in Oregon’s forests, using the same industry lobbyists to write the report that originally refuted Law’s research.   

Read more about the full investigation here.  

By Cara Nixon