SALEM — Funding for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute would be substantially decreased under a bill that’s been cleared for a House vote by a key legislative committee.
The institute provides education to landowners and the public about forest management but has come under fire from critics for alleged bias and lobbying on behalf of timber interests.
Currently, OFRI receives nearly $4 million in annual funding from a timber harvest tax.
Under House Bill 2357, 67% of the harvest tax revenues would be directed to accounts aimed at encouraging sound forestry practices and assisting family forestland owners, overseen by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
One-third of the harvest tax revenues would continue going to OFRI, whose board of directors would include new members representing the environment community and fish and wildlife scientists.
The original version of HB 2357 would have eliminated OFRI but the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources approved a scaled-back version of the bill earlier this year.
The House Revenue Committee has now recommended an amended version of the bill for a vote on the House floor with a “do pass recommendation.”
“I do think it provides the additional accountability we would like to see,” said Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, during a recent legislative hearing.
Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, said she was comfortable with the changes made by HB 2357, noting that funding for family forestland owners and sound forestry practice education would remain stable under the bill.
“I’m glad we’re keeping the overall amount of money and keeping the important landowner education program and other education programs,” she said. “But shifting it to ODF can actually lend some expertise and specificity that landowners receive.”
Opponents of the bill, such as Rep. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, said the bill was an overreaction and urged lawmakers to hold off on cutting OFRI’s funding until a pending audit was completed by the state’s Secretary of State.
“We’re taking a drastic step here and we can’t walk it back until the next session. Reducing the budget by two-thirds eliminates a lot of what OFRI does today,” he said.
The allegations of ethical violations favoring the timber industry also occurred under a previous executive director, Reschke said.
“Do we need to tighten things up? Do we need to take a look at it?” he said. “Yeah, I think we do but we also need to use the Secretary of State’s audit as a guide.”