How a pandemic-related drop in Oregon Lottery revenues could lead to a rise in invasive plants

Spiky-stemmed gorse pushes out native plants — and COVID-19 is imperilling measures to keep it in check.

 

The lush, brilliant yellow flowers of gorse stretch for miles on the dunes along the Oregon coast. The invasive bush was introduced to the area in the 1890s, and has since dominated over 55,000 acres in Oregon. Its spread has pushed out native plants, hastening erosion on steep slopes and rendering fields once used for grazing or farming unusable. Because gorse’s waxy leaves are laden with flammable oil, it’s also a fire hazard: In the 1930s, a fire fueled by the plant destroyed the entire town of Bandon, and gorse fires have popped up along the southern Oregon coast as recently as 2015.

Dustin Williams, the vegetation management foreman with the Curry Watersheds Partnership, applies herbicide to gorse on a private ranch in Brookings, Oregon. This type of work is made possible by state funds, some of which are tied to the Oregon state lottery.
Erin Minster/Curry Watersheds Partnership

Gorse is also extremely tenacious — its roots are extensive, and some experts believe its seeds can be viable for up to 70 years. Sherri Laier, the noxious weeds program coordinator at the Coquille Watershed Association in southwest Oregon, calls it “a really nasty plant” — its spiky stems deter easy removal and require years’ worth of herbicide treatments, followed by regular monitoring for new growth. More extreme infestations require a team of workers using chainsaws and excavators. Typically, the association relies on grants from state agencies to fund this work, but next year, that funding may not continue. The culprit? An odd combination of factors: The coronavirus pandemic — and the Oregon Lottery.

Like other state lotteries, the Oregon Lottery gives a portion of its revenue to state agencies and funds. For example, the Oregon Lottery provides 15% of its net earnings — around $107 million in 2019 — to the Parks and Natural Resources Fund. The fund is split evenly between the state’s parks department and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which offers grants to nonprofits, universities, tribes and conservation districts for projects benefiting natural areas and waterways. Those contributions were baked into the agencies’ budgets long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 — or realized that the state’s lottery revenue would drop drastically because of it. “We were hit pretty hard,” said Matt Shelby, the lottery’s community and corporate engagement manager.

The pandemic has affected Oregon in particular due to the popularity of its video lottery games, which are stationed inside bars and restaurants. (State lotteries which rely on scratch-off and ticket-based games sold at gas stations and grocery stores, like Washington’s Lottery and WyoLotto, have seen sales rise in recent months.) According to the Oregon Lottery’s 2019 financial report, nearly three-quarters of its 2019 revenue came from digital games; when the establishments hosting them shut down due to stay-at-home orders, that revenue fell to zero “literally overnight,” Shelby said.

That’s put state agencies in a tough position with regard to funding. Oregon State Parks is facing a $22 million budget deficit between now and next June — around 10% of its total budget — due in part to diminished lottery revenues (as well as lost revenue from park closures between March and June). “If the lottery’s not bringing in sufficient funds to have a net profit, then the park share is in question,” says Chris Havel, associate director of Oregon State Parks. In response, the department has cut programs and staff — including Laier, who was let go on June 30 and subsequently found a job at the Coquille Watershed Association. “We’re not sure when or if the lottery will recover to the point where it can once again play the role in our budget that we expect,” Havel said.

This year, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which typically funds the Coquille Watershed Association’s gorse work, will likely only be able to offer grants worth about half the $45 million they usually provide, said Meta Loftsgaarden, the agency’s executive director. Normally, the board would accept the next round of grant applications in December, but due to lower lottery revenue, it’s now waiting until at least March 2021.

Gorse is an extremely tenacious invasive plant that is found extensively along the Oregon coast.
Keith Saylor

“Not having this funding next year will definitely give the gorse a leg up.”

That leaves a funding gap for many projects, as well as uncertainty regarding future support. Meanwhile, conservationists fear they’ll lose ground in their fight against gorse. “Not having this funding next year will definitely give the gorse a leg up,” and could erase previous gains in managing the plant’s spread, said Melaney Dunne, director of the Coquille Watershed Association. “With invasive weeds, there’s a real return on investment by continuing to work on it year after year.”

The association is trying to find ways to supplement the potential delay or absence of lottery funding, but many of its usual sources — foundations, donations and other government grants — are also strained as a result of pandemic-related economic turmoil.

Now that Laier’s work has been threatened twice by the lottery shortfall, she’s wondering what will become of the strides she and her colleagues have made in controlling gorse. “It’s just sad, because a lot of us have done this amazing work,” she said, noting that there are still more treatments and follow-ups that she and her colleagues are eager to tackle. “All I can do is try to be hopeful that this will pass.”

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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