Andy Kerr

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

Preremembering Barbara Roberts, Oregon Conservationist

Millions of acres of federal old-growth forest still stand because of former Oregon governor Barbara Roberts (D). The Upper Klamath River would have another damn dam and not be safely within the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System if not for Roberts. Oregon would have some god-awful cyanide heap leach gold mines if not for her. If not for her . . . (there’s much more).

Barbara Kay Roberts, born in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1936, was Oregon’s thirty-fourth governor, serving from early 1991 to early 1995. Her other elected offices have included school board member, community college board member, state representative, and secretary of state.

Yes, Barbara is still with us, but this is my premembrance, similar to what I have done for two other still-living great Oregon conservationists: Bob Packwood and Jim Weaver. It is an interesting exercise and a challenge to write a remembrance of someone not yet passed. This preremembrance is highly selective, focusing on a few epic conservation controversies in which Roberts secured her place in history. To learn more about her, read her autobiography, Under the Capital Steps: A Woman’s March to the Governorship (OSU Press, 2011), the first by an Oregon governor.

Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts in 2009.  Source: Wikipedia

Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts in 2009. Source: Wikipedia

A Close Election

In 1990, Roberts was midway through a term as secretary of state when Governor Neil Goldschmidt announced he would not seek reelection. Not until a 2004 piece of investigative journalism published in Willamette Week was it adequately explained why the popular governor chose to forego a very likely reelection: his sexual relationship with a thirteen-year-old girl while he was mayor of Portland (1973–1979). Alas, the sexual predator was not then convicted of statutory rape, as it was beyond the three-year period allowed to charge him under the statute of limitations. At least you will not find his official portrait hanging any longer in the Oregon State Capitol.

In the 1990 general election, Roberts’s Republican opponent was Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. Fortunately for Roberts (and Oregon’s forests and streams), there was a third-party candidate in the race, independent Al Mobley, who ran on an anti-abortion platform. Also in the race was a Libertarian Party candidate. In this four-way race, Roberts was elected governor by a plurality, not a majority.

Refusal to Pander to Big Timber

Roberts stood for election as the timber industry was going down and lots of Oregonians were pissed off about it. During the campaign, she was quoted in the papers as saying:

We had a timber problem long before anyone other than a few biologists had ever heard of the spotted owl. Mill jobs have been declining for several years. The state needs to end raw log exports and retool its mills to handle second-growth trees and also manufacture more finished products. We need to use higher timber taxes to help retrain workers and provide grants to sawmills to retool.

Unlike nearly every other Oregon politician at the time, Roberts refused to pander to Big Timber. At a meeting of the Northwest Forestry Association, a timber industry trade group, gubernatorial candidate Roberts did no sugarcoating. She told the assembled timber barons, “We must play the hand we’ve been dealt.” In deep denial and anger (the stages often overlap), Big Timber was livid, hurt, and scared, and it backed Republican Frohnmayer with a vengeance. Roberts would be the first Oregon governor to be elected not only without the help of Big Timber but also over its opposition.

Within a year, the first-ever effort to recall an Oregon governor was in place. Roberts faced three recall efforts early in her term, before the forces of darkness gave up, having failed each time to secure the requisite signatures. The strange coalition seeking to remove her from office consisted of anti-choice, anti-gay activists and pro-timber industrialists. The timber industry was the deep pockets for all three efforts.

Timber was an issue that separated the adults from the children in Oregon politics (not so much now). While Governor Tom McCall (1967–1975) ran and governed proudly as an environmentalist, it was all about filthy air, polluted water, and sprawl, not about clear-cutting old-growth forests. Things were starting to change a bit by the time Tom’s successor, Governor Bob Straub (1975–1979), came into office. Bob supported adding 750,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System. While these were mostly lands of little timber value, his action was visionary and bold at the time. I believe it was a major contributing factor to Bob being a one-term governor.

A Memorable Start to a Momentous Single Term

Like every other governor, Roberts wanted her administration to be different. Starting with her inauguration, it was. Among the many firsts was a troop of Girl Scouts serving as the color guard at the inauguration rather than the traditional Oregon National Guard. There was also a performance by a gay chorus (remember, it was 1990).

Most different for me was that I was in attendance not in the upper bleachers of the Oregon House of Representatives but on the floor, as I had a ticket in my pocket—an official invitation from Oregon’s new highest elected official. The northern spotted owl had hit the fan the year before in Oregon and I was playing my role as strategic bomb thrower and political lightning rod. There I was mingling with Oregon’s elite (remember, it was 1990).

By that time I had at least four publicists working to feature my role in the then-raging Northwest Timber Wars. The publicists were not on my payroll but on the timber industry’s. Every cause, even ignoble and unjust ones, needs a personification of evil. I’d grown up in Oregon’s timber country, so I was their designated hittee. (I enjoyed it; does that make me a masochist?)

As a state and as a society, Oregon was just starting to process the five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, grieving, and acceptance) of the death of Big Timber as the state had known it. While I was at acceptance, almost everyone else in the room—save for the new governor, it would turn out—was bouncing violently back and forth between denial and anger.

It was neither politically wise nor necessary for the governor to invite me to her inauguration, as Barbara already had my full support and I understood my outsider role. I shall never forget this personal kindness of the governor.

Saving the Upper Klamath River

In 1988, the voters of Oregon added 11 miles of the Upper Klamath River to the Oregon Scenic Waterways System, brought to the ballot through initiative petition. The City of Klamath Falls sought to dam(n) the stream with the Salt Caves Dam. A broad and deep coalition of conservationists, anglers, and boaters were desperately throwing sand in the gears of the hydroelectric project. While state scenic waterways status wouldn’t stop a federally licensed dam, it unequivocally put the State of Oregon on record in support of conservation and not exploitation. The city had a tough path to get all the required permits, but they’d hired a bunch of consultants, paying them handsomely from the money they’d gotten from selling tax-exempt municipal bonds to build the dam and investing in more lucrative financial instruments.

Under an obscure provision of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the secretary of the interior can accept a request from a governor of a state to include a state-protected stream in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. For that to happen, some political stars have to align: a governor who asks and a secretary who accepts. On September 22, 1994, President Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, included the Upper Klamath as a unit of the national system. This process obviated the need for the usual path to conservation, an Act of Congress, which would have been tough to get given the opposition of the state’s senior senator, Hatfield, and the local member of Congress at the time, Bob Smith.

Opposing Invocation of the God Squad

In June 1990, the northern spotted owl was given protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Roberts was elected the following November and took office in January 1991. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now had to “consult” with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure their logging program didn’t jeopardize the continued existence of the imperiled owl. Roberts never waivered in her support of the ESA; it was the law and a good law, and she would support no riders to legislatively gut the law for the convenience even of her own state’s powerful timber industry.

The BLM refused to heed the biological advice of the Fish and Wildlife Service and asked the so-called God Squad (officially the Endangered Species Committee) to override the science and allow them to go ahead with forty-four federal timber sales planned for 4,600 acres of land in western Oregon. Roberts directed the State of Oregon to oppose the invoking of the God Squad.

The God Squad, established under amendments to the Endangered Species Act in 1978, was a committee of cabinet-level officials tasked with the power to allow a species to go extinct if it was economically too costly to save it. The God Squad had seven members:

• Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly

• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator John Knauss

• Council of Economic Advisers chair Michael Boskin

• Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan

• Secretary of the Army Michael Stone

• Secretary of the Interior Manual Lujan

• State of Oregon representative Tom Walsh

After all the evidence was presented, it was deal-making time within the committee. A supermajority of five votes was needed to exempt the timber sales from the requirement of the ESA. Roberts had directed her appointee, Portland businessperson Tom Walsh, to vote no—make that hell no. The other no vote was EPA Administrator William Reilly. Five yes votes were cast by the others, but NOAA administrator John Knauss cast a yes vote only after insisting that the exemption be limited to thirteen timbers sales on 1,347 acres.

A further condition of Knauss’s vote was that the BLM would have to adopt and embrace the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan, which would place off-limits to logging 5.7 million acres of federal old-growth forest. The George H. W. Bush Administration’s BLM just could not go there, so in the end it did not exercise the exemption granted by the God Squad. (I recommend the documentary The God Squad and the Case of the Northern Spotted Owl available from Bullfrog Films.)

Though the State of Oregon was on the losing side of the God Squad vote, the position it took under the Roberts administration shocked the outgoing (they didn’t know it yet) Bush administration and set the tone for the new Clinton administration, which later came out with what was to be known as the Northwest Forest Plan.

Paying the Political Cost

Roberts’s leadership on behalf of Oregon’s forests and future cost her politically. She chose to not seek reelection for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to facing a very tough campaign (including a primary challenge by Senate president John Kitzhaber) and grieving the death of the love of her life, state senator Frank Roberts (which prompted her to write her first book, Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology: A Guide for Facing Death and Loss).

The last official letter she signed as governor was to Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) urging him to drop his support for the budget-busting and fish-killing Elk Creek Dam on a major spawning tributary to the Rogue River. Hatfield never reversed his support, but today Elk Creek flows freely through a half-built but fully breached Elk Creek Dam.

I can still recall this line (today it’s called a soundbite) from Governor Roberts’s inaugural address:

I will be tuned to the next generation, not to the next election.

She was. It was a major reason she was a one-term governor and ranks as one of Oregon’s greatest governors (along with Oswald West, 1911–1915, another one-termer).

Thanks, Barbara!