Oregon Wild

This is our second installment in the interview series we’re doing on our shared efforts to defend wilderness. Today we’re featuring Oregon Wild, who’s been working to protect and restore Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife and waters since 1974. We love their work and are proud to give 10% of all our profits to organizations like them. To read the other interviews in the series, visit here.

JR: We’re talking with Sean Stevens, Executive Director of Oregon Wild. To start, can you tell us a little about the political atmosphere in Oregon like right now?

OW: The world of Oregon politics had a big shake-up a year ago with the resignation of Governor John Kitzhaber. He resigned just a month after starting his unprecedented fourth term. Our then-Secretary of State, Kate Brown, is now in the Governor’s seat and is expected to win re-election in a special gubernatorial election in 2016.

The chaos at the top is a somewhat symptomatic of the state’s schizophrenic policies on things related to the environment. We tout our green credentials and politicians of all stripes wax eloquent on the beauty of our state (and how that beauty makes us a huge draw for employees who seek out the quality of life that we offer). However, those positive platitudes are typically not matched with the action that most Oregonians would expect. We have every statewide elected office and the majority of both our state House and Senate controlled by Democrats (typically the party that performs better on environmental policy) and yet we can’t seem to make progress on key areas where we lag far behind neighboring states.

A great example is private land logging rules and the use of aerial pesticide spraying. We have the weakest aerial spray rules in the West and a series of high-profile news stories in our local outlets documented how because of these lax rules, people were being poisoned. Oregon Wild and our partners took a modest reform package to the state legislature in 2015 and couldn’t even get a hearing. While our economy has moved on from the timber dominance of the 1970s, our politics still lingers in those days. The logging industry and other polluters still have a disproportionately large influence in the political process, be it through lobbying or paying to get politicians elected. We call these politicians Timbercrats.

JR: What have been some recent, great successes?

OW: With our politics (both locally and at the Congressional level) being so haywire right now, we have definitely been in more of a defensive posture. We are building some amazing Wilderness campaigns for the long run, but in the meantime our successes have come from staving off bad ideas. Of particular note was our effort to beat back legislation in Congress that would have seen a doubling or tripling of logging on western Oregon federal forest lands managed by BLM. Many of our elected officials have been hell bent on upping the cut, under the false notion that doing so will somehow bail out local county governments that are strapped for cash (usually because they have some of the lowest property tax rates in the state). On a smaller, but very important scale, we won a court case aimed at stopping the BLM from implementing the White Castle Timber Sale. This logging project was somewhat of a test case for a new-ish kind of logging that is called “variable retention regeneration harvest,” a clever name for what is otherwise known as a sloppy clearcut. BLM wanted to do this type of logging in a natural, 100-year-old forest and we convinced a judge to reject their proposed timber sale.

JR: What are some of the biggest challenges right now?

OW: A big challenge in Oregon is changing the narrative. We have a strong self-perception that we are the greenest state in the country. In some ways, we are doing a great job. We pioneered, and recently expanded, bottle and can recycling. We protected our beaches for the public way back in the 1970s. But, on issues related to forests and watersheds, we have fallen way behind. We’ve protected only 4% of our state as Wilderness (as compared to Washington’s 10%, Idaho’s 8%, and California’s 15%). We have the weakest set of private forest laws in the West that fail to protect people, wildlife, and drinking water. We just removed our state’s recovering gray wolf population from the state endangered species list. Our challenge is to educate Oregonians about where our state truly stands when it comes to protecting our natural legacy. We are, quite frankly, failing future generations right now and we need to turn the tide so that we can be proud of what we pass on to future Oregonians.

JR: What parts of Oregon are most endangered?

OW: We have some scary proposals out there right now. LNG export terminals and pipelines in both southern and northwestern Oregon. Coal train and old train export terminals in the Columbia Gorge. Ocean acidification and the warm “blob” out in the Pacific. All of these problems are immediate.

But perhaps the biggest threat right now is in Oregon’s forests – whether on federal lands, state lands, or private lands. Our state and private lands are poorly managed under a forest practices act that is the weakest in the West. What’s worse is the state is considering selling off the 90,000 acre Elliott State Forest – the only place on state lands with significant stands of old growth. On federal forest lands managed by the Forest Service and BLM, we face legislative threats and the prospect of new administrative management plans, all aimed at upping the cut and reversing the gains that we have made since the Northwest Forest Plan was put in place two decades ago.

JR: How did you come to Oregon Wild?

OW: I’m lucky to have been born and raised in Oregon. While growing up, and long before my consciousness was raised about environmental issues in our state, there was a group out there protecting everything that I came to love about wild Oregon. Back then, we were called the Oregon Natural Resources Council (or ONRC) and we fought to protect 800,000 acres of Wilderness in 1984 and worked to bring an end to the rampant clearcutting of old growth on public lands. When I returned to Oregon after college I bounced around several jobs but realized that my true passion was working to protect the environment. Using the communications skills I had developed working in television media I nabbed a job as the Oregon Wild communications staffer. I’ve now been at Oregon Wild for over 8 years and can’t imagine working with a more dedicated and effective group of people.

JR: What is the history of the organization?

OW: I’ve alluded to some of our accomplishments above, but the whole thing got started in the mid-1970s. There were plenty of folks who loved to go hiking, camping, and elk hunting in Oregon’s wild places, but each year they returned to their favorite places they saw more and more of it destroyed by industrial logging. So, activists from all corners of the state united under the banner of the Oregon Wilderness Coalition in 1974.

In the early days, grassroots activists were trying to make sure that the Forest Service was being honest in their roadless area inventory. These areas were primed to one day be Wilderness and OWC wanted to make sure that the Forest Service didn’t skip over eligible areas to try and keep them open to future logging. All of this work led to the 1984 Wilderness bill for Oregon where 800,000 acres was protected all across the state.

In the early ’80s we switched our name to ONRC, recognizing that we were doing more than just Wilderness advocacy. Sure enough, throughout the 1980s we were instrumental in building the legal underpinnings for the challenges that would lead to the listing of the northern spotted owl and ultimately redefine forest managements on public lands across the Pacific Northwest. Since that time and the adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan we have changed our name one (last!) time to Oregon Wild, continued our work to watchdog logging projects and other proposals on public lands, and passed two more Wilderness bills in 1996 (for Opal Creek) and 2009 (to protect areas on the Mount Hood National Forest and all across the state).

JR: Why do we need Oregon Wild?

OW: We’ve got a saying here at Oregon Wild – “If you own a pair of hiking shoes, you should own a membership in Oregon Wild.” Anyone who cares about Oregon’s outdoors has been the beneficiary of our work over the years. We provide a statewide voice, focused exclusively on Oregon, speaking out for the protection of the last wild places we have left. We use every tool in the toolbox to be an effective advocate for Oregon’s environment and our state would be far different and far lesser place without us.

JR: How do you decide an action plan?

OW: Even though we are almost always outspent by the extractive industries that oppose us, we have plenty of tools to use in our work to protect Oregon. Grassroots advocacy, media, litigation, policy-making, education, lobbying – these are just some of the ways we can effect change. When we are choosing how to solve a particular problem or protect a certain place, we are mixing and matching all of these tools to ensure that we have a complete strategy for success. For example, we could bring a successful lawsuit, but if we don’t do enough lobbying and education we could see our victory immediately overturned by the legislature. Our plans have to be sensitive to our limited resources, long range enough to weather different Congresses and presidential administrations, and inspirational to the members that count on us to be their voice.