science environment

Oregon Senate Weighs Controversial Fish And Wildlife Appointments

By Tony Schick (OPB)
Portland, Ore. May 4, 2019 12:05 a.m.

An Oregon Senate panel is set to vote Wednesday on five nominees for the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission that the governor’s office now finds itself defending against criticism from the state’s environmental lobby.

The sharpest criticism has focused on nominee James Nash, a Marine Corps veteran, rancher, outfitter and big game hunter from Enterprise, Oregon.

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The Fish and Wildlife Commission governs the agency in charge of managing all fish and wildlife in the state, setting policy on everything from the barbs on fish hooks to endangered listings for sea birds and wolves. The five vacancies on the seven-member panel give Gov. Kate Brown the opportunity to shape the majority of the commission.

Brown’s other Fish and Wildlife Commission nominees are:

  • Mark Labhart, a retired Tillamook County commissioner who spent more than 30 years with the Oregon Department of Forestry and now lives in Sisters.
  • Robert Spelbrink, a longtime commercial fisherman from Siletz who also has experience as a hunter and sport-fishing guide.
  • Mary Wahl, of Langlois, who spent 30 years as an environmental regulator, including a division administrator at the Department of Environmental Quality and a watershed services manager at Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services.
  • Jill Zarnowitz, a former regional biologist and administrator in Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife from Yamhill who also owns a vineyard and winery.

Environmentalists took issue with the fact that the nominations include three people with ties to the fishing, ranching, hunting and forestry industries that are often the subject of the commission’s decisions. The nominations include no people of color.

“Public commissions that are supposed to represent Oregonians should look something like Oregonians and the changing face of our demographic,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild. “To not have diverse representation — whether it’s people of color or people who represent industries that haven’t traditionally been a voice on the commission — I think the governor is missing a real opportunity here.”

Stevens and others in the environmental lobby have long claimed Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission seats are used as political trading pieces. They say the latest nominations conflict with the governor's vision for fish and wildlife. The governor's office disputes that.

“The Governor has not changed course in terms of environmental conservation and wildlife,” Kate Kondayen, deputy communications director for Brown, said in response to emailed questions.

“Governor Brown’s approach to board and commission appointments is to keep a balance of diverse experiences and backgrounds to ensure the concerns of all Oregonians, urban and rural, are reflected in the state’s work,” Kondayen said. “Those considerations include subject matter expertise, and in this case, regional representation, which is a specific requirement in filling seats for the ODFW Commission. All of these requirements add complexity and challenge into composing a commission that represents a wide variety of Oregonians.”

Two of the nominees, former state environmental officials Wahl and Zarnowitz, drew praise and official endorsements from the environmental community. But in a letter to the governor's office, first reported by Willamette Week, Oregon Wild and other groups singled out Nash, the rancher and outfitter from Enterprise, for both for his relationship to the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and his African big game hunting.

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Nash’s father, Todd, is a rancher and Wallowa County Commissioner who served as chair of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association wolf committee and testified in front of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. Asked about this potential conflict of interest, Nash said he would make wildlife decisions on data from the best available science.

Until recently, Nash's Instagram account showed several photos of him posing with dead animals he'd shot during a hunting trip to the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, including a hippopotamus, a water buffalo and a crocodile. Environmental groups compared Nash's photographs to that of an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner who resigned after a African hunting photos surfaced, including one of him grinning over a family of dead baboons.

A screenshot from James Nash's Instagram shows him with a warthog. Nash's photos of big game hunting prompted outrage from the state's environmental groups after he was nominated to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, but several others, including the Oregon Hunters Association, have voiced support for Nash's selection.

A screenshot from James Nash's Instagram shows him with a warthog. Nash's photos of big game hunting prompted outrage from the state's environmental groups after he was nominated to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, but several others, including the Oregon Hunters Association, have voiced support for Nash's selection.

Courtesy of Oregon Wild

In emails, Nash dismissed the notion that his own experience as a big game hunter is incompatible with work on the commission, and he said his time in Africa was not purely trophy hunting.

“Hunters love the animals they pursue. They care deeply for the environment and abhor the thought of depleting a resource,” he said, noting that a portion of hunting license and tag sales pay for wildlife conservation. “Hunters are more than financial backers of animals, they are their champions and protectors.”

Nash cited his longtime work in natural resources on his mother's 6 Ranch in Enterprise, where he helped complete a Wallowa River restoration he said he first envisioned when he was 8 years old.

“I watched a pair of wild chinook spawn there, which had not happened before in my lifetime,” Nash said. “That's the conservation work I'm proud of.”

Nash has taken one hunting trip to Africa, he said, which he was offered in thanks for his military service. Nash was a tank officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was awarded two Purple Hearts after being wounded in Afghanistan.

“On the hunt we killed a charging bull hippo in self defense, and a crocodile which had been eating locals, as was evidenced by the several bracelets we found in its stomach afterwards,” Nash wrote. “The animals we hunted were all abundant in this area, the meat was preserved for local Massai families to eat, and a portion of the money we spent helped fund the anti-poaching initiative.”

Brown’s office said she was unaware of the photos when she made the nominations, and added that she would not be withdrawing the nomination but would be leaving the process to the Senate.

Nash has the support of the hunting community. Jim Akenson, conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association, penned a letter in the Statesman Journal newspaper defending Nash against “recent media attacks launched by environmental extremists.”

Akenson said in an interview that Nash demonstrates a deep understanding of both game and nongame wildlife.

“Here he fought for his country and he’s turning around and volunteering back,” Akenson said. “James is one of a fleet of five candidates and from our perspective, some are more suited to our interests than others, but by and large the governor’s appointment of that group meets our approval.”

Akenson said he was aware of Nash’s relationship to the Oregon Cattlemen's Association but that he was confident he could be objective. Akenson is familiar with the situation: He works for the Oregon Hunters Association while his wife, Holly, is a current member of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

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