State legislators heard a parade of woes ranging from ruined businesses to crippled conservation education programs to the likelihood of devastating wildfires, all during a fast-paced hearing on Thursday.
The House Interim Committee on Natural Resources held a teleconference that included spoken or written testimony from nearly 30 people on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were representatives of state agencies, businesses, unions and advocacy groups involved with Oregon’s forests, oceans, rivers and other natural places.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a financial feedback loop: Shuttered businesses, skyrocketing unemployment and limits on recreation result in a sharp drop in state taxes and fees. Without the money, state agencies cut back on staff, programs and grants. That in turn further cripples businesses, workers and groups, leading to even less revenue for Oregon’s treasury.
Rep. Brad Witt, D- Clatskanie, the committee chairman, asked the long roster of speakers to “give us the headline” on the problem, then add how the Legislature might “make things better in the future.”
“Natural resources help drive our state’s economy,” Witt said. “They are an outlet for our well being and good mental health.”
Faced with a nearly $3 billion shortfall in state revenue, Gov. Kate Brown has asked every agency to submit a plan to cut their spending by 17 percent. It’s unlikely all agencies will face across-the-board reductions. Brown is expected to call a special session of the Legislature to work out what gets saved, what gets cut and how to raise more revenue.
That formula led to the committee hearing two distinct but differing themes: Agencies saying they cannot do their jobs with such drastic reductions, while businesses asked for relief from current taxes and a moratorium on new levies.
Peter Daugherty, state forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said a 17 percent cut would be disastrous as the state faces a hot, dry summer. In a normal year, the state sees about 2,200 fires that burn over 500,000 acres. But the 2020 fire season is looking especially tough.
“If we have to take that level of cut, it means we can no longer provide an adequate level of protection,” he said. “We have deferred a lot of costs, kicking the can down the road.”
Daugherty said funding for firefighting had not kept pace with the increasing number and severity of wildfires in the past decade.
“I’m advocating for increased investment,” he said.
Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, said the governor and legislators needed to take any new business taxes off the agenda if Oregon’s battered economy has any chance to turn around.
“First, do no harm,” said McCabe, whose group represents five of seven paper mills in Oregon with over 4,000 employees. He said lawmakers should instead consider repealing or delaying a corporate excise tax enacted last year and shouldn’t pass a carbon-reduction bill that the industry believes will cost it more money.
“That is not what we need now,” he said.
Rex Storm, executive vice president of the Associated Oregon Loggers, said the small family operations represented by his group had a simple message for lawmakers.
“We must reopen Oregon,” he said. “Please let us get back to work.”
Greg Pallesen, president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Union, said outbreaks of the virus have been curbed so far, but the working environment could lead to rapid infection in the future.
“Workers are elbow-to-eblow, all day long, in a hot environment,” he said.
Union members say they are concerned that the response to the lack of availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been the loosening of regulations during the crisis. Too many safeguards are “recommendations, not requirements” that the state is willing to enforce.
“This is a shame,” he said. “We are seeing safety standards lowered.”
Curt Melcher, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the restrictions of the “stay home, save lives” edicts by Brown led to shuttering facilities and cancelling programs. Revenue from fishing and hunting licenses is down, as are funds that come from the sale of boating fuel.
One funding bright spot for the department is a jump in Pittman-Robertson Act funds. These come from a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition that states can use for conservation and hunter education. The spurt of gun purchases during the coronavirus crisis has meant more money for states.
Lisa Sumption, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, said its 226 properties across the state are a magnet for people who want to get out in nature. When the department announced it would close the entire system on March 23 for the first time in its 100-year history, Oregonians flocked to the seaside in droves the weekend before.
“A crush of visitors overwhelmed parking areas, stripped local supplies in smaller communities like Warrenton and Astoria, Lincoln City, and created concerns about virus spread in communities that were not reporting cases,” she said..
The department had to refund over $500,000 in advance deposits when the state closed its 53 overnight campgrounds.
Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orchard, said the order to shut businesses has been a financial disaster for coastal areas dependent on fishing and tourism.
“We need a greater assist on the coast with the dramatic level of unemployment and layoffs,” he said. “Forty percent of restaurants are not coming back.”
Business and industry groups said the percentage of eateries that never open their doors again will likely be much higher. The impact ripples through businesses with restaurants as key customers.
“Live seafood demand has been decimated overnight,” said Anthony Dal Ponte, director of legal and government affairs for Pacific Seafood. He said even reopening isn’t likely to buoy businesses that have to limit their number of customers and require servers to wear masks. It’s not the ambience most diners are looking for.
“It’s like eating in a hospital cafeteria,” he said.
Speakers for several nature, conservation and wildlife programs and advocacy groups said the crisis had crippled their ability to take people in groups out to see Oregon’s beauty.
Kristopher Elliott, Outdoor School Program Leader for Oregon State University Extension, said school closures and cancellation of school trips meant that about 14,000 sixth-graders were unable to attend Outdoor School. Despite a projected 14 percent cut in its budget, Elliott said the program would like to find a way to not only get sixth-graders into the program, but also go back and find the now-seventh graders and give them the experience.
“We want to make sure students still have that opportunity, while remaining safe,” he said.
Advocates asked the lawmakers to make sure there was a chance for the public to weigh in on waterway and ocean regulations, invasive species, timber sales, mining permits and other issues where public meetings during the emergency have given way to virtual events or aren’t happening at all. They also asked the committee to not forget natural resources funding and grants when it comes time to carve up the state budget.
Witt said that could be a tough task.
“We typically underfund, very significantly, natural resources in our state,” he said. “When it comes to a crisis like the present one we are facing, it only compounds the inadequate funding.”