Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Premembering Bob Packwood, Oregon Conservationist

The Snake River in Hells Canyon would be dammed today if not for former Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR). The French Pete watershed would not have been returned to its rightful place in the Three Sisters Wilderness if not for Packwood.

No, Packwood is not dead yet, but he is in his ninth decade (and with all his marbles, the last time I saw him). I am implementing a new policy to remember some Oregon public lands conservation greats before they, in words from Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, “have shuffled off this mortal coil.” It is an interesting exercise and a challenge to write a remembrance of someone not yet passed. I’ll call it a premembrance.

Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR) at Hat Point, overlooking Hells Canyon, 1986. Photo: Elizabeth Feryl, Environmental Images

Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR) at Hat Point, overlooking Hells Canyon, 1986. Photo: Elizabeth Feryl, Environmental Images

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Packwood—like all of us—has a dark side, and he did not keep it in check. This caused him to be forced to resign from his beloved United State Senate in disgrace.

To summarize (but not to minimize) the end of his congressional career: Packwood lost his ability to control alcohol, and it controlled him. The Washington Post was on the case and was ready to report a damning story just before the 1992 election, in which Packwood was facing then U.S. Representative Les AuCoin (D-1st-OR). If the story had come out before the election, Packwood would probably have lost, but Packwood and his attorney adamantly denied the allegations and the Post paused to gather more facts and sources to make the story bulletproof. When the story did come out, ten women, chiefly former staffers and lobbyists, accused Packwood of sexual abuse and misconduct. Later another nine women would come forward. After the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously recommended his expulsion from the Senate, Packwood resigned on September 7, 1995. The Wikipedia page on Packwood is the place to learn more, about both Packwood’s downfall and accomplishments.

While in no way excusing his reprehensible behavior, here I celebrate two very great contributions Bob Packwood made to the conservation of public lands and waters in Oregon—and remember his downfall as a public lands conservationist, which preceded his downfall as a senator. Unfortunately, like the Republican Party, Packwood’s conservation record became far less green from the late 1960s through the early 1990s when he left office. (His party’s record is now dark brown.) When Packwood left office, he was on the wrong side of environmental history as well.

It is often the last speech a senator gives on the Senate floor that contains the most truth. Only then—after the hope of re-election by the voters has been surrendered by the self of dashed by the voters—can a senator both think clearly and speak freely.

Packwood’s farewell address was, understandably given the circumstances, rather maudlin. It was somewhat stream-of-consciousness and full of emotion. Remarkable to me was the depth in which Packwood spoke about saving Hells Canyon. In 1975, Congress enacted legislation establishing the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in Oregon and Idaho, and by designating that stretch of the Snake as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System permanently banned any dams in one of the deepest river gorges on the face of Earth.

When then State Representative Bob Packwood first ran for the Senate in 1968, he was taking on the “lion of the Senate,” Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR). Morse was first elected to the Senate in 1944. Packwood carried that election by a mere 3,500 votes, fewer than 0.5 percent of the votes cast.

Though a Republican, Packwood favored the protection of the French Pete Valley on the Willamette National Forest in Lane County, while the incumbent Democrat Morse favored its logging. Then, as now, the issue that separates the adults from the children in Oregon environmental politics is the logging of older forest on public lands, though it was an extremely minor issue in the 1968 campaign.

Morse was a spellbinding orator and Packwood was a great debater. I couldn’t vote in 1968, being in the eighth grade, but I recall favoring Packwood, perhaps because he was the underdog.

During Packwood’s first term, he introduced legislation to save both French Pete and Hells Canyon, which were not popular political positions to stake out. In that era, logging was looked upon favorably by most, and building dams almost everywhere was an unquestioned good. Oregon’s other U.S. senator at the time, Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), was adamantly in favor of logging the former and damming the latter. The local members of Congress were in the same camp as Hatfield and almost every other Oregon elected official.

Hatfield, who was on the committee of jurisdiction for the French Pete bill, refused to allow a hearing on the bill. So Packwood held his own unofficial hearing in Eugene.

Until the early 1970s, the debate over Hells Canyon was over who would build, not whether to build, the dams. The battle of public versus private power went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1967 decision—several years before enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act—Justice William O. Douglas, writing for a unanimous Court, found that the Federal Power Commission had failed to consider the option of not damming Hells Canyon. This landmark decision gave Packwood room to maneuver and, eventually, Congress time to act.

The first breakthrough for French Pete was the election of Representative Jim Weaver (D-4th-OR) to Congress in 1974. The local member of Congress now wanted to save French Pete.

Packwood was re-elected that year after a challenge by then Democratic State Senator Betty Roberts. Roberts had a 100-percent rating from the Oregon League of Environmental Voters (OLEV, now Oregon League of Conservation Voters or OLCV), and the league endorsed her over Packwood. Packwood did not forget this perceived slight (politically, it is important to remember your incumbent friends and not easily throw them over the side for a potentially better date), but his ardor for French Pete and Hells Canyon was undiminished.

In the summer of 1975, as a budding public lands conservationist, I attended the dedication of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area at Hat Point, overlooking Hells Canyon. There Packwood said, “If we save all the roadless areas that are left as Wilderness, in fifty years it won’t be half enough.” After hearing those words, I was ready to walk through fire for Packwood.

By 1978, Senator Hatfield had come around, and French Pete was indeed saved for this and future generations. However, aside from French Pete, Packwood was generally missing in action for the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978, which not only saved French Pete but also established the Wild Rogue and Wenaha-Tucannon Wildernesses and expanded the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. This was troubling to me.

In 1980, Packwood was again standing for re-election and running against another state senator with a 100-percent OLEV rating. I was on the OLEV board at the time and led the charge for State Senator Ted Kulongoski (who later became attorney general and then governor of Oregon). My case was based on Packwood’s waning support for wilderness and his predictably waxing and waning national League of Conservation Voters (LCV) scores. I coined the term “the Packwood curve” to describe the phenomenon where Packwood would earn an LCV score in the low 20s percent in the year immediately after his re-election and then the score would steadily increase to the mid 80s percent in the year of his re-election.

Packwood was also missing in action during what became the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984, which saved almost a million acres. I later believed this was primarily because Hatfield forced Packwood to the wilderness sidelines, but it was also because enviros couldn’t be counted on to support him (for generally, but not always, good reasons, enviros tend to favor Democrats) and, like any politician, Packwood needed reliable friends.

In 1986, Packwood faced a re-election challenge from Representative Jim Weaver, who was beloved by conservationists. However, I and some other conservationists believed that while Weaver could easily be re-elected for his house seat, he couldn’t win statewide against Packwood. We chose to support Packwood over Weaver, thereby splitting the Oregon conservation community.

During the 1960s through the 1980s, for a Republican to win statewide in Oregon, it was very helpful to be starkly non-Republican on one issue so as to be able to split the Democratic vote. For Hatfield it was peace and opposition to war; for Packwood it was a woman’s right to choose.

Packwood, who truly loved Hells Canyon and wanted to save the rest of it, introduced legislation to expand the Hells Canyon Wilderness by 300,000 acres on the Oregon side. Just two years after Hatfield said he would never ever do another wilderness bill, Hatfield was holding a field hearing in LaGrande for Packwood’s Hells Canyon bill. If it took another wilderness bill to ensure the re-election of his fellow Republican, Hatfield was there. Before the LaGrande hearing, Packwood went back to Hat Point for the rededication of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, at which he said, “If we save all the roadless areas that are left as Wilderness, in fifty years it won’t be half enough.” By this point, I wouldn’t walk through hell for Packwood, but I was feeling good about having supported him over Weaver in the upcoming election.

After the July hearing, Packwood traveled to John Day to campaign. As he prepared to fly out of the John Day Airport, Tim Lillebo (Packwood’s Grant County campaign chair), James Monteith (chair of Oregon Conservationists for Packwood), and I had a very frank talk with Bob about moving his Hells Canyon wilderness bill before the election. The three of us were all then in the employ of what is now known as Oregon Wild (for the record, we were doing this electioneering on our own time). We discussed how Hatfield might still block the Hells Canyon bill, having given Packwood his hearing. We frankly discussed the risks: Oregon was slowly becoming harder for Republicans to win statewide and our three respective and collective conservation asses were exposed for having backed a now-marginal Republican against a stellar (but un-electable) Democrat.

Packwood said, “Don’t worry about Mark; I’ll handle him. You guys figure out how to get it through the House of Representatives.” As Packwood flew off toward Portland, we felt elated and made plans to be back in D.C. just after Labor Day to help move the Hells Canyon bill through the Senate.

In August, under an ethics cloud, Weaver withdrew from the race. The Democratic Party chose a state representative, whose campaign plan consisted chiefly of walking between Ashland and Portland before the election, to replace Weaver on the ballot.

Lillebo and I were in D.C. promptly after Labor Day, but we couldn’t get a meeting with Bob. His staff was stonewalling us. Lillebo, the consummate congressional lobbyist, staked out a route in one of the Senate office buildings that he knew Packwood frequented. Lillebo confronted Packwood, who sadly explained, “Mark won’t let me do it.” Hatfield blocked the Hells Canyon bill because, with Weaver out of the race, the bill wasn’t necessary to ensure Packwood’s re-election.

As we had plane tickets expensive to change, Lillebo and I had no choice but to retreat to the Monongahela National Forest for several days of drinking, swearing, and crying.

By the next time Packwood sought re-election in 1992, there was no split in the conservation community. The northern spotted owl had hit the fan in 1990, being listed under the Endangered Species Act. Federal timber sales had plummeted and all the Oregon congressional delegation feared election defeat for having failed to deliver big timber to Big Timber.

Speaking at a timber industry rally at Pioneer Square, Packwood said the same individuals who opposed old-growth logging also wanted to take away people’s guns (ironic, as Monteith, Lillebo, and Kerr all owned more guns than we needed—but not as many as we wanted).

This time, the Democratic opponent was U.S. Representative Les AuCoin (D-1st-OR). AuCoin had been as bad as any member of the Oregon delegation on federal forest logging, but he needed us and we needed him. AuCoin saw the tide turning against Big Timber, and Big Timber was totally in the tank for Packwood. Though Packwood won, he would not complete his term.

As the Republican Party moved rightward in general and brownward on environment, Packwood moved with it. Yet Packwood, a consummate politician, also saw the turning tide. The very morning after his re-election he mused to the media that Big Timber would have to compromise as the times were changing. At that moment, a green-again Packwood in 2000 seemed a distinct possibility.

Packwood’s wish and hope was to drop dead on the Senate floor. But the alcohol’s lubrication of his dark side caught up with him. At the time I remember wondering why. Hell, only rock and sports stars could get laid more easily than a U.S. Senator. However, as my women friends convinced me, it wasn’t about sex, but power.

A U.S. senator lives a sheltered life in a rarefied world. Everyone around a senator wants something (a bill, advancement, money, tax breaks, stumps, acres, whatever), so it is not in anyone’s interest to tell a senator when he is full of crap or over the line.

I too was caught up in enabling the senator. He had taken a shine to an Oregon Wild board member at the second dedication of Hells Canyon, and I found myself conspiring with staff to get her car back home while Packwood flew her. At the time, I rationalized it, as it was consensual on her part and it was for wilderness and nature on my (if not also her) part. (For the record, the liaison did not occur.)

I thought at the time—and still do—that if Packwood had simply responded to the allegations with “I’m an alcoholic and I’ve accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior,” he would still be in the Senate today. However, he denied too long because he wanted to avoid the truth and also because his most trusted advisor, ardent supporter, and effective defender told him to stonewall. Because she loved him—and he her—she believed his denials. Today, they are happily married and quietly residing in Dunthorpe, a tony neighborhood between Portland and Lake Oswego.

I hope when his obituaries are published, they give adequate space to Packwood’s conservation achievements. Unlike the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the legislative accomplishment for which he is best known, his legislation saving Hells Canyon and French Pete endures.

Thanks, Bob.

In this blog post I used portions of, or adapted with the benefit of hindsight from, an article I did for Cascadia Times in 1995, entitled “The Browning of Bob Packwood.”