ODOT's hazard tree removal program is culling trees indiscriminately. As seen in this photo, subcontractors have hastily and sometimes indiscriminately removed healthy and living trees, even in old-growth forests, recreation areas, and along important rivers and streams, in actions that have been said by whistleblowers could amount to fraud (photo by Cascadia Wildlands taken April 30, 2021).

Opinion: Oregon Department of Transportation is a hazard to Oregon’s wildfire recovery

by Dylan Plummer, CW Grassroots Organizer
Originally published in The Register-Guard, May 22, 2021.

On April 29, The Oregonian published an article wherein Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Andersen dismissed community concern about the agency’s post-fire roadside clear-cutting as part of a misinformation campaign led by Cascadia Wildlands. That same day, arborists, landowners and the mayor of the small logging town Gates testified before the Oregon Legislature about ODOT’s gross malfeasance.

Over the next few weeks, more whistleblowers came forward to publicly decry ODOT’s “hazard tree” removal project with explosive first-hand accounts of indiscriminate clear-cutting of living old-growth trees, contractors logging while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and other reprehensible behavior.

The allegations were so dire that legislators called for Gov. Kate Brown to put an immediate halt to the cutting pending an independent investigation. After prolonged silence, Brown announced a person would be hired to review the activities, but failed to pause the cutting. Irreversible damage was — and is still — being done to our state’s iconic waterways and scenic byways as Brown allows her agency to continue along its path of destruction. Subsequent reporting has made clear the scandal is even deeper than originally understood, yet ODOT’s attempted gaslighting of our organization has not been retracted and reveals the depths to which the agency will sink to avoid accountability and transparency.

Despite calls from elected leaders at the state and local level, thousands of emails from Oregonians, in-depth reporting with eight whistleblowers and a newly announced audit by the secretary of state’s office underway, Brown has remained almost entirely silent and done nothing to pause the cutting. The governor’s silence speaks volumes, even as thousands of Oregonians from across the state are protesting, writing letters and doing everything in their power to demand an immediate halt to the agency’s “hazard” tree removal. Of additional concern, if the contractors’ activities are found to be fraudulent, FEMA could deny federal disaster reimbursement and leave Oregon taxpayers to pick up the multi-million-dollar bill.

While Cascadia Wildlands and our partners support selective and ecologically informed removal of hazardous dead trees that pose a direct risk to motorists on commonly used highways, it is clear that ODOT’s response has been anything but. Moving forward, we must ensure our wildfire recovery efforts do not cause further trauma to impacted residents and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Wildfire is a reality for Oregon. The forests of our region have co-evolved with fire for millennia, and as the climate crisis progresses, we will see longer fire seasons and more extreme weather events. Even now, we are facing what is shaping up to be another historic wildfire season with Oregon already experiencing the second driest spring since 1895. If we continue to respond to these wildfires by bowing to the demands of disaster capitalists and allowing for the indiscriminate removal of large trees, alive and dead, we are creating a precedent for unending ecological destruction and setting ourselves up for worse disasters in the future. 

In light of the past month’s revelations, Brown must order an immediate halt to the lawless “hazard” logging statewide pending completion of a full, independent investigation into ODOT’s mismanagement.

Dylan Plummer, Grassroots Organizer for Cascadia Wildlands.
His column appears in the Register-Guard on the fourth Saturday of the month.