Controversial Appointments Approved for Oregon’s Water Department, Forestry Board

Despite pushback, the Oregon Senate approved two controversial candidates to serve on the state Board of Forestry and as the director of the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Heath Curtiss and Ivan Gall were among dozens of Oregonians confirmed Friday to a litany of governor-appointed positions on state boards and councils, as well as state agencies. Curtiss, a lawyer and former lobbyist for Hampton Lumber, will serve on the Board of Forestry despite pushback from environmental groups in early May that initially caused Gov. Tina Kotek to withdraw his nomination.

The board has in recent years become a battleground for conservation groups and the timber industry, vying for greater power to preserve or log state forests. Bob Van Dyk, a former policy director for the nonprofit Wild Salmon Center, was also struck from Kotek’s nomination list inexplicably and then resubmitted this week.

Gall, a 30-year veteran of the Oregon Water Resources Department, will lead the agency after two years as deputy director. Kotek announced Gall was her nominee in early May, after two nationwide searches within the last year failed to turn up a candidate she preferred.

The water resources agency faces criticism from some industrial and agricultural water users over permitting backlogs while also dealing with an urgent need to account for remaining groundwater supplies that have declined dramatically in many parts of the state over the last century. Gall and other agency leaders have faced criticism from lawmakers over their willingness to permit more water use in many areas where there is little existing data about how much groundwater is available.

“The Governor takes the appointment process seriously and is satisfied that these appointments would best serve the public interest,” Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Kotek, said in an email.

The Senate considered Gall’s appointment separately from other nominees and confirmed his appointment on a 17-10 vote with all Republicans opposed. The Forestry board nominees were approved without discussion and with only one senator, Republican Art Robinson of Cave Junction, opposed.

New water director

In a meeting of the Senate Interim Committee on Rules and Executive Appointments Wednesday, Sens. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, grilled Gall about what he’d do to turn the agency around in his first 100 days.

Hansell asked case-specific questions about ensuring water rights for agriculture in his district while Steiner wanted to know how he’d regain trust from some Oregonians who feel the agency is unwilling to take on complex permits or to enforce penalties when a water user violates their permit.

Gall said he’d spend his first few months on the job talking to water users around the state and getting feedback on their needs, but pushed back on the accusation that the agency is unwilling to take on hard cases or to enforce regulations.

“I can say with a high level of certainty that our team really has not avoided some of the tough issues. We’ve taken on a lot of those, particularly in more recent years, and I think we have plenty to document there,” he said.

No one on the committee asked Gall about the urgency of dealing with declining groundwater supplies in parts of the state, which was the topic of several other natural resource and agriculture committee hearings this week, as well as bipartisan calls from top water lawmakers and Kotek to get an accurate accounting of the state’s groundwater reserves and to overhaul the state’s water permitting policies.

All Republicans in the Senate voted against Gall on Friday.

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, conceded that Gall was “technically highly qualified” –but he said Gall hasn’t proven he can do the job Oregon needs him to do.

“We need somebody to come in and change the direction of this agency,” Findley said.

Steiner, who voted for Gall’s confirmation, said she expects lawmakers to watch him closely and that he’ll need to turn the agency around or lose his job. The agency needs the stability of a permanent director after 18 months without one, she said.

“We have to give him a chance and we have to give this agency a chance to get back on its feet and change direction,” Steiner said.

New Forestry board members

Curtiss, who is general counsel for Portland-based Hampton Lumber, affirmed at his hearing Wednesday that he would not, despite some reports to the contrary, work to overturn a landmark state conservation plan passed by the forestry board earlier this year. The Western Forests Habitat Conservation Plan reduces logging in Oregon’s western state forests over the next 70 years to protect threatened species. Curtiss and Hampton were vocal opponents of the plan throughout its development and passage.

“I’m not interested in re-litigating the issue,” he told the committee. “The decision has been made to proceed. At this point, I’m principally interested in realizing the benefits of an HCP (habitat conservation plan) on the terms approved as soon as possible without making it worse.”

The seven-member board is charged with overseeing the Oregon Department of Forestry, including rulemaking on plans that dictate logging and habitat conservation in state forests. Curtiss will replace outgoing forestry board member Karla Chambers, who also serves on the board of Hampton Lumber. Three members of the board are, under state law, allowed to maintain financial ties to the timber industry.

A coalition of eight conservation groups wrote to Kotek in early May urging her not to nominate Curtiss.

“Mr. Curtiss was a leading opponent of the Western Oregon State Forest Habitat Conservation Plan, a key strategy for the state to avoid violating the Endangered Species Act on state forests and a plan that you have worked to shepherd through to completion,” they wrote.

But conservationists will get a counterbalance in Van Dyk of the Wild Salmon Center, who was also confirmed to the forestry board Friday after being removed from Kotek’s initial list of nominees without explanation. He’ll serve the remaining year of board member Chandra Ferrari’s term. Ferrari is an environmental lawyer and former administrator at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife who now serves as one of Kotek’s natural resource advisers.

Van Dyk also sought to dispel conflicts of interest in his hearing.

“I want to note that I see a clear distinction between my earlier work as an advocate and the work of a board member,” he told the committee Wednesday. “The board work requires wanting to find a public interest by hearing and considering a wide range of views. I will strive to work with any and all of the parties who seek to shape business before the Board of Forestry.”

by Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Deputy Editor Julia Shumway contributed reporting. 

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