UPDATE (March 6, 5:32 p.m. PT) — Two highly consequential forestry bills were among the piles of unfinished business Oregon lawmakers left behind when they ended their session early on Thursday.
One of the bills affirmed an historic agreement between environmental groups and the timber industry on forest management issues including aerial pesticide spraying and stream protection. It was designed to avoid a ballot measure fight that now could be on its way to voters.
The other bill would have launched Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's multi-faceted plan to reduce wildfire risk statewide and would have directed nearly $25 million toward that goal.
The Legislature ended the session without voting on either bill after nearly all of the state's Republican lawmakers walked out of the Capitol and left Democrats without a quorum.
Senate Bill 1536 was built around the conclusions of the Governor's Council on Wildfire Response, which met for about a year before giving the governor a $4 billion recommendation. The council's conclusions and the subsequent legislation supported reducing fuel load — forest undergrowth and thickets of young trees — through logging and prescribed burning in the forests, adding firefighting resources, safeguarding homes, reducing transmission line safety risks and improving wildfire smoke protections for at-risk communities.
Matt Donegan, who chaired the governor’s wildfire council, said he was encouraged by all the work lawmakers did to advance the bill and the bipartisan support it had before the Republican walkout. He’s hoping to see some action on the wildfire response plan before next year.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing that the session wound down without that going through,” he said. “I think the nightmare scenario is going to be if we have a horrible fire season. If the recommendations we made could have been helpful in preventing some kind of tragedy and because of the walkout the recommendations weren’t followed. I don’t think anyone wants to see that.”
In a written response, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, which stood to receive most of the funds from the bill, said regardless of what happens to the legislation, the agency will continue to work with the governor's office on protecting the state's natural resources from wildfire.
A spokeswoman for the governor's office also sent a written response to questions about what will happen to the governor's proposal.
"In light of the Legislature adjourning [Thursday], a lot of plans and concepts will have to be addressed at another juncture, or via other means," Kate Kondayen, deputy communications director for the governor's office, wrote.
The governor had also coordinated the new forestry management plans outlined in House Bill 4168, which was also left to die at the end of the session.
The bill solidified a commitment made by timber companies and environmental groups last month to participate in a mediated process to develop a plan for how private forests should be managed to protect species and water resources. The legislation would have funded those mediated discussions while also putting new requirements on aerial pesticide spraying.
Environmental groups had planned ballot measures aimed at increasing protections on waterways and limiting aerial pesticide spraying. Timber interests had their own ballot measures that would require compensation for landowners if their ability to log was limited by state regulations and to change the makeup of the Oregon Board of Forestry, which manages state forest policy.
Without the legislation, backers of the proposed ballot measures could decide to move forward with their original plans, according to Ralph Bloemers of the Crag Law Center, who has been working on several ballot measures on behalf of conservation interests.
“As a result of Republicans walking off the job, that settlement now hangs in the balance,” Bloemers said. “Unless they return to pass it, there’s a good chance that folks will go back to the ballot.”
Democrats have said they intend to hold a special session to address budget issues within the next 30 days. The governor said she would be willing to call a special legislative session if lawmakers bring her a plan for a “functioning session.” It remained unclear on Friday whether the forestry bills could be addressed in a special session.