While her previous position as Oregon’s secretary of state typically did not put her in the environmental spotlight, Oregon’s new Governor Kate Brown is no stranger to green agendas or protests. In summer of 2012, members of Cascadia Earth First! and Eugene’s own Cascadia Forest Defenders locked themselves together at Brown’s office at the state Capitol to call attention to logging in the Elliott State Forest.
As secretary of state, Brown was a member of the State Land Board, which governs the Elliott, and she will continue on the SLB as governor. Logging on state and federal lands is among the many green issues that Brown will be asked to take a position on in the coming months.
In addition to a law degree from Lewis and Clark, Brown has a BA in environmental conservation from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The media and GOP lawmakers have linked former governor John Kitzhaber’s downfall to his fiancée Cylvia Hayes’ clean energy work, and some predicted this would slow down climate bills in the Legislature, but so far that has not borne out. The clean fuels bill, a Kitzhaber priority that extends Oregon’s low-carbon fuel standard, has passed in the Oregon Senate.
“There might have been a scandal, but that doesn’t follow to Kate Brown,” says Doug Moore of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV).
“I think we just have to be a little patient right now because folks in the Legislature are hurting; it’s a weird position for them to be regardless of party,” he says, adding that OLCV wants to give her “time to develop her own environmental agenda” and “do what she does best, which is think things through.”
Moore points to Brown’s legislative voting record, tracked by OLCV: In the 2007 session as a state senator she scored an 89 percent, and in 2005 and 2003 she scored a 67 percent. Before that, in 2001, she scored a 92, in 1999 a 93 percent and, in 1997, she scored 100 percent.
Moore says the fact that her “lifetime” average green voting scores were in the 80s is even more impressive, given that she was in the minority with the Republicans in power during much of her tenure.
Once Brown develops her agenda, Moore says OLCV hopes that “the number one issue is climate; it’s the environmental issue of our time.” He continues, “The victories we have had can all be undone if we don’t take action on climate.”
According to Moore, “Without states like Oregon to lead on climate, we won’t see action, and that’s not acceptable.”
And Oregon has a lot of areas where it can step up its efforts to slow human-caused global warming. Conservationists are fighting fossil fuel projects including coal export terminals, oil trains — such as the one that exploded in West Virginia last week — and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and their associated pipelines.
“Oregon’s billion-dollar sportfishing economy depends on clean water,” says Michael O’Leary, deputy director of the Northwest Steelheaders Association. “But we’re frighteningly unprepared to face the exponentially increasing risks of an oil train disaster along our waterways.”
O’Leary says, “We desperately need Gov. Brown to give the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] and ODOT [Oregon Department of Transportation] the tools they need to respond to — and to better prevent — -these increasingly likely catastrophes.”
Josh Laughlin of Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, which has been fighting a natural gas pipeline and an LNG terminal in Coos Bay, says of Brown: “We definitely have high expectations in terms of her ability to be an environmental champion.” He calls LNG one of a “myriad of conservation issues squarely in her court.”
“Will she pull the plug on the reckless scheme to build a 230-mile natural gas pipeline?” he asks.
“The stakes are incredibly high on this one,” Laughlin says, “for wild salmon, clean water, climate stability and rural communities in southwest Oregon, which are being steamrolled by the fossil fuel industry and government regulators in terms of eminent domain and other scare tactics.”
Laughlin says Kitzhaber was “a mixed bag for us on our issues.” He says, “Some things he stepped up on, and on some things he was a real disappointment,” such as advocating for “ramping up the cut” on federal forestlands. On the other hand, he says, the former governor “helped broker a settlement setting up a plan for wolf recovery.”
He says Brown will have an opportunity to stand up for wolves, as Cascadia Wildlands expects “to see bills stripping protections for wolves and trying to kill wolves, as we do every session.”
Cascadia Wildlands is also keeping an eye on where Brown will go in her continued position as a member of the SLB and its governance over state lands. “On the Elliot she’s expressed a real interest in finding a conservation solution,” Laughlin says. “But the jury is still out in terms of what that means and what a solution looks like.”
He says, “The solution to us is very clear, and it’s beginning to gain more and more traction in Salem.” That solution, he says, is to “decouple the Elliott from the Common School Fund” so that the old growth in the coastal rain forest is no longer earmarked as a revenue for schools. “It makes no sense in this day and age to tie old-growth clearcutting to school funding,” he says.
Laughlin says Cascadia Wildlands would like to see Brown take a leadership role in terms of finding a solution. He asks, “Will she step up in finding a conservation solution Oregonians will be proud of?”
Lisa Arkin of Beyond Toxics, which is working to limit aerial sprays of pesticides on forestlands in Oregon, also has hope for Brown’s green credentials, pointing to her work on Oregon’s Sustainability Board and calling her “gung-ho” on seeking solutions.
During Kitzhaber’s three terms as governor, conservationists did not see improvements in Oregon’s weak Forest Practices Act, which governs logging and the use of pesticide sprays on private lands. Laughlin and Arkin hope Brown will change that and strengthen Oregon’s laws.
We have “high hopes in terms of her ability to be an environmental champion,” Laughlin says, “and hope she recognizes these issues we are working on are in the best interests of the Oregonian she represents.”