Think Out Loud

Oregon needs more money to combat wildfires, but lawmakers are split on how to do it

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Jan. 11, 2024 5:13 p.m. Updated: Jan. 11, 2024 8:54 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Jan. 11

FILE - This Feb. 26, 2021, file photo shows damage from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire near Gates, Ore. Projected costs for wildfire protection and response is estimated to be about $136 million for 2024. Two Democratic lawmakers have plans to introduce two different proposals on how Oregon should fund the costs of wildfires.

FILE - This Feb. 26, 2021, file photo shows damage from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire near Gates, Ore. Projected costs for wildfire protection and response is estimated to be about $136 million for 2024. Two Democratic lawmakers have plans to introduce two different proposals on how Oregon should fund the costs of wildfires.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

The projected costs for wildfire protection and response for the state this year stand at about $136 million. Two Democratic lawmakers have different proposals on how to fund the combat of wildfires. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, wants to charge property owners in the state an additional $10 to help address costs. Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, wants a ballot measure to go to Oregon voters that, if passed, would place a tax on the value of timber harvested on private land. Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for the Oregon Capital Chronicle and has been covering the two proposals. She joins us with the details.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. After wildfires raged throughout Western Oregon around Labor Day of 2020, Oregon lawmakers approved a big one-time increase in funding for wildfire response and prevention. But in the years that have followed, that funding has dwindled. Meanwhile, climatologists and forest scientists say we can expect an increase in fire activity in the coming years. That’s led Democrats in the Oregon State Senate to release competing proposals for new dedicated sources of wildfire funding. Alex Baumhardt wrote about these proposals recently for the Oregon Capital Chronicle and she joins us now to talk about them. Welcome back.

Alex Baumhardt: Thank you.

Miller: I want to start with the big picture. Why did you want to focus on funding for state firefighting efforts?

Baumhardt: I knew that after the legislative session that ended this summer, that wildfire funding was not as robust as it had been in recent years. And that East Oregon ranch owners and small forest landowners had expressed some real pains about the amount of money they were paying for fire protection from the state. And then when I recently learned a proposal was coming up that would ask every property owner in Oregon for 10 bucks to help with these funding gaps, I was pretty intrigued.

Miller: That’s one of the proposals we’re going to hear about in just a bit. What did happen to state funding for wildfire prevention in response between 2021 and 2023?

Baumhardt: Yeah, like you said, after those 2020 Labor Day fires, the state legislature came out strong with wildfire funding. There was record wildfire funding because those fires had basically become the most expensive disaster the state had ever seen. So the legislature allocated this record funding and it included $15 million to help subsidize fees that these landowners pay to the state per acre for fire protection. And after these massive 2020 Labor Day fires, costs all around are going up. The forestry department and the legislature realized that those fees will have to go up, and rather than dropping the full weight of the higher prices on the landowners all at once, the legislature said Oregonians across the state will help, will absorb some of the pain with the state’s general fund. So a $15 million subsidy. And that’s important because wildfire protection in Oregon is already split between the state’s general fund and landowners. It’s about 50/50. So it was the legislature saying we, the state, will pick up a bigger proportion for now.

Then fast forward to this summer, the legislature does not renew the subsidy. It, in fact, cuts a lot of wildfire spending that had been approved just two years prior. And the landowners are hit with the full weight of these higher per acre fees. So in some areas, the fees go up by as much as 40% from the previous year.

Miller: Why did that subsidy drop?

Baumhardt: The general fund is just competing with a lot of other interests. So that’s the fund that the state was drawing on to help pay for wildfires. You’ve had a couple of pretty mild fire seasons in comparison to 2020, coupled with these competing priorities at the state level - tackling housing, substance abuse and recovery, youth mental health issues. So throwing $15 million to subsidize landowner wildfire protection became less of a priority.

Miller: Is Oregon’s way to pay for fire protection different than other western states that are dealing with the same basic physical realities?

Baumhardt: The most similar would be Idaho. They’ve got a 50/50 split, but when it hits a sort of catastrophic limit, the state fully takes over. Washington does 25% landowner, 50% state, 25% federal. But again, at the catastrophic level, the state kicks in. California pulls 100% from its general fund, as do several other western states. But it’s important to note that in a lot of other states like California and Washington, there are more property taxes, harvest and severance taxes and other taxes and fees that go into the state’s general fund from industrial timberland owners than there are in Oregon.

Also, some states like California have a stand alone fire agency that’s able to draw more direct funding from taxes and fees. We don’t have anything like CAL FIRE in Oregon.

It’s just the Department of Forestry. So Oregon landowners and especially the timber industry will say we pay more directly for fire protection than any other state. And the operative word there is “directly,” because while they do pay those per acre fees to the state, they’re on a greater hook to split some of the catastrophic fire costs with the state. So we don’t really have apples to apples comparisons of how much landowners in California and Washington and other states are paying compared to Oregon landowners, but landowners in Oregon can say they pay more directly for fire protection.

Miller: OK. So that’s the background that’s led to these two different proposals, both by Democrats, both in the State Senate, to provide more dedicated funding for wildfire response at the state level. Let’s take them one by one.

What is Portland Senator Elizabeth Steiner proposing?

Baumhardt: The essence of her proposal is a $10 fee on all property owners in Oregon. So there are 2 million property accounts in the state. This could bring in $20 million and $12 million of that would go to subsidizing those landowner fees. $8 million would help cover a portion of wildfire funding that’s currently coming from the general fund, which again has many other priorities to pay for.

Miller: Meaning, a homeowner in the St. John’s neighborhood in Portland and a ranch owner outside of Madras, and somebody in Lane County who owns a mansion there, they’re all gonna pay $10 that goes towards firefighting?

Baumhardt: Yeah, a homeowner in Oregon would pay $10. So would the owner of a 100-unit apartment building across the street.

Miller: But Steiner’s plan is not just to add this new fee to property owners, it would also cut existing fees for range and timber landowners. By how much?

Baumhardt: It depends on the type of land, but anywhere from like a third to a half.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

She’s also recommending the state finally indexes these three taxes that are a part of this convoluted wildfire funding system. But there are three taxes - a harvest and two lot taxes - that would also be indexed for inflation for the first time in 15 years. That would bring in $6 million. So the property owners do have to foot that bill, but the sort of tax watchdog groups say, listen, that’s a long overdue accountability thing. It should not be considered a new source of funding. So net-net, landowners would see per acre fees cut by a third to a half.

Miller: What might that mean for some of the largest private timberland owners in the state, the Weyerhaeusers of the world? I say that plural, but there aren’t that many of them.

Baumhardt: The largest private timberland owners in the state would by and large be paying less to the state for fire protection. I use the example of Weyerhaeuser, because it’s among the world’s and the U.S’s. largest real estate and timber holding company. They own about 1.6 million acres of forest land in Oregon. So based on the average fees per acre that Senator Steiner is proposing for these private timberland owners, Weyerhaeuser could save up to $1.4 million per year on these per acre fees.

Miller: So, I mean, this would essentially shift the cost of fire prevention from agricultural land users like Weyerhaeuser, to everyone else. What’s the argument in favor of that?

Baumhardt: That wildfire is everybody’s problem now. And a fire even 100 miles from Portland is a Portland problem because you’re breathing that air or you’re confined to the indoors and that we’re in an era where everyone needs to pay a little bit more to combat wildfire.

Miller: What arguments did you hear in opposition to this idea?

Baumhardt: I think the strongest argument in opposition is that we already do pay for that. We Oregonians pay into the state’s General Fund and that covers half the costs already. So the folks at the watchdog group Tax Fairness Oregon say Oregonians are already subsidizing fire protection for all landowners. They also say that the state’s protection is ostensibly insurance, right? So when the state agrees to protect Weyerhaeuser forests for a fee, that’s an insurance. So they say, listen, Weyerhaeuser doesn’t pay my homeowners insurance. Why should I pay theirs? And then the last argument is that it’s a regressive fee, cutting fees on a company like Weyerhaeuser, worth $25 billion, and instead charging every homeowner in Oregon, regardless of their income, is sort of antithetical to the idea that we don’t ask the public school teacher to pay as much in taxes and fees as the billionaires.

Miller: You did some reporting to learn how Elizabeth Steiner’s proposal came to be. What did you learn?

Baumhardt: I learned it’s the product of a work group that was kept pretty secretive, not only the membership but the meeting schedules. The 11 members met regularly since September, along with the governor’s wildfire natural resources advisors and State Forester. And among those 11 members are four people that are employed by industrial timber companies or industry groups. So you have an employee of Weyerhaeuser, Lone Rock Timber Management Company, Green Diamond Resources and the Oregon Forest Industries Council. The issue, to begin with, was brought to Steiner’s office by small East Oregon Forest landowners and ranch landowners who feel like they’re paying a lot for protection on their land that doesn’t have billions of dollars of natural resource assets on it, like Weyerhaeuser’s land. So they feel like they’re paying really high fees on land that they might not be using for any sort of extractive purpose. They’re not harvesting much or any of their timber at all.

So it was interesting to me that the work group didn’t include anyone from the Cattlemen’s Association or the Farm Bureau or the League of Oregon Cities and counties and special districts. The only representatives from Eastern Oregon were really a former Baker city commissioner and the East Oregon manager for the Nature Conservancy. And then you have Jim Kelly who’s the chair of the State Forestry Board and he lives in Grant County. But this was a work group heavily representing industrial timber that walked away with a proposal to more sustainably fund wildfire protection in Oregon by cutting the fees that they would pay, and instead shifting some of the cost onto every Oregon property account.

Miller: It’s worth noting that Senator Steiner, a Democrat, is running to be the next state treasurer. What did you find when you looked into campaign finance records?

Baumhardt: That the companies that were employing some of those members on this work group that represent timber, had donated to her not only in the last few years, but during the time that the work group was meeting. So in September, Senator Steiner got $4,000 from the Oregon Forest Industries Council pack for her treasury campaign. She got $1,000 from Weyerhaeuser in December for that campaign. And then looking back sort of on her history in the state legislature, she’s been in the Senate for over a decade, and she did not receive any money from timber until about three years ago, when she became the co-chair of the very powerful budget, budget writing Joint Ways and Means Committee. And she’s not alone in that. Several other members of the committee have received money from the timber industry as well. But it’s notable that it’s been sort of ramped up as her power has ascended and most recently, from companies that have representation on this work group.

Miller: OK. So that’s the proposal that Senator Steiner is putting forward. What about Senator Jeff Golden from Ashland?

Baumhardt: Senator Golden wants industrial timber companies to pay a larger portion of that state wildfire protection cost. So he’s proposing a tax on the value of timber harvests that are coming off of these lands and the tax would be higher depending on the acreage that each company holds or is logging. So a small timber operation wouldn’t pay the same rate as a company like Weyerhaeuser. And then this funding would go, portions of it, directly to fire districts. Some would go to improving drinking watersheds, some would go to helping counties sort of gird themselves against the impacts from climate change.

Miller: What’s his argument for why this would be a better system than the status quo?

Baumhardt: I think Golden’s argument is that there are industrial timber companies that have billions of dollars of natural resource assets, in and around land that is protected by the state and that they should pay more for this. Sort of like I pay much higher car insurance if I buy a $60,000 car. I pay higher insurance if I own a home in an area at high risk for certain disasters. Sort of like the fees to the state should be commensurate with the value of the protection they’re getting.

Miller: In an interview with you, Golden talked about the elimination of the state’s severance tax back in 1999. This is something that we talked about a few years ago after reporting by OPB and ProPublica and The Oregonian. But that was a while ago. Can you just remind us what the tax was and what its elimination has meant for the state and for big timberland holding companies?

Baumhardt: Golden’s proposal is actually a lot like that severance tax that existed up until the early nineties, which was a tax on the value of timber that companies harvested. Today, Oregon has a harvest tax that exists just on the volume of timber that companies harvest. So even when the price of timber skyrockets like it did during the pandemic, the state and the counties where the timber is harvested don’t see the benefits of the profits that these companies are bringing in.

The investigation by OPB and the Oregonian and Propublica - that looked into what was lost when the severance tax went away, when we were no longer taxing the value of the harvest - found that those counties that had previously gotten a lot of those financial benefits from the severance tax, and that was money they used to pay for all kinds of services including fire protection and response. They lost billions. The investigation found they lost at least $3 billion over the last three decades.

Miller: What did you hear from the timber industry in response to Golden’s proposal?

Baumhardt: That wildfire is an all-Oregon problem now and we need to focus on sustainable solutions. And even with Steiner’s proposal, which is broadly supported by the timber industry, they feel they will still be paying more than their counterparts in other states.

Miller: Alex, thanks very much.

Baumhardt: Thank you.

Miller: Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories