The Oregon way

Governor John Kitzhaber casts for consensus in the Northwest's troubled waters

  • Oregon

    Diane Sylvain
  • PROBLEM SOLVER: Gov. John Kitzhaber

    Michael Lloyd photo/The Oregonian
  • Purse seiners in Puget Sound in the 1950s

    Museum of History & Industry photo
  • Salmon are dumped from a trap into a barge, circa 1910

    Museum of History & Industry
  • Workers gather coho salmon Oregon Aqua fish farm

    Ore. Historical Society/No. 98926
  • "RIVER RAT": John Kitzhaber fishing in Oregon

    Courtesy Kitzhaber
  • Bill Bakke, director of Native Fish Society

    Carlotta Collette
  • Rancher Jim Jaberg

    Carlotta Collette
  • Gov. Kitzhaber, L, looks over salmon habitat restoration project

    Carlotta Collette
 

Note: four sidebar articles, listed at the end of this article, accompany this feature story.

Oregon's Gov. John Kitzhaber is not happy doing battle with environmentalists. It's not that he's shy of conflict. One of the Democrat's trademarks is his willingness to take tough stands on issues, particularly natural resource ones. But another is his ability to bring people to the table and keep them there - -hunkered down," to use one of his favorite expressions - until issues get resolved. And he is frankly angry that some key environmentalists left the table last year when he was trying to craft a recovery plan to block federal Endangered Species Act listing of his state's wild coastal coho salmon.

Oregon's coho have suffered the same fate as salmon runs all along the West Coast - only worse. The things that have driven other salmon toward extinction - destruction of habitat, overfishing, and the introduction of overwhelming numbers of hatchery salmon that compete with wild strains - have been even harsher on coho. The problem is that coho spend more of their lives in closer contact with people. They are upland spawners, swimming farther in polluted water, releasing their eggs higher in ruined habitat. And they spend their first winter and sometimes longer in the waters where they spawn, high in the clear-cut forests of Oregon's Coastal Range where both the land and the water are the most damaged and most difficult to restore. Salmon that spawn closer to the ocean and spend less time inland have fared somewhat better.

Kitzhaber understood all of this and the urgent need for action to turn it around.

But he had also experienced close at hand the potential failure of federal listings. He had watched Oregon, and particularly his timber-based home county in the southern part of the state, tear itself apart when the government added the northern spotted owl to the list of threatened species more than a decade ago. The owl's habitat is old-growth forests, and the listing pit loggers against environmentalists in a drawn-out battle that is still being waged. Kitzhaber was betting that together, local communities and culpable companies could design a better recovery plan for salmon than the federal government could - one they'd be willing to carry out.

And it appeared that his strategy was working.

Kitzhaber began in the way he prefers - bringing together the people who really understand the problem he's tackling. In this instance, the group included people whose livelihood depends on the Oregon Coast, as well as fisheries scientists, environmental groups and others.

After the first weeks at Kitzhaber's table, timber companies, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers and others had made their mea culpas and were beginning to agree to voluntary fixes. Some said they'd put up fences along river reaches to keep their cattle out of salmon spawning gravel. Others began to rebuild shorelines ruined decades ago by splash damming - that river-wrecking practice of plugging streams to pool up water, filling the pools with felled trees, and then blowing the whole thing up so the trees could crash downslope, destroying everything in their path.

The private landowners and timber companies were willing to change largely because they knew a federal listing would make things even tougher for them. But they did it, too, because John Kitzhaber - jeans-clad, cowboy-booted, leather-jacketed, certifiable "Man of the West' - had earned their trust and was staking his reputation on this one.

But some of the key environmentalists had walked.

Even without them, the governor seemed to have pulled it off. He'd kept enough salmon advocates engaged to build his collaborative action plan. He'd taken it out to communities all along the coast and won their support. He had gotten it approved and partially funded by the state's Republican-led legislature (the timber companies said they'd pick up the rest through a tax on their operations). And he'd convinced the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, pronounced "nymphs') to accept it and not list the coho.

Oregon's was the first state recovery plan the feds had ever approved as an alternative to listing under the Endangered Species Act. And it had taken some fast action and a little last-minute finagling on the part of the governor to get there.

In mid-April 1997, just days before the last possible deadline by which NMFS had to rule on the coho, the agency sent the governor its notion of an agreement to settle the deal. The governor just had to sign and the listing would be dropped - the Oregon Plan would be in.

But the governor wasn't happy with what he read. "It was just outrageous," he says. "I don't want to doubt anyone's motives, but it was designed so we couldn't possibly do it." That weekend, Kitzhaber drafted his own version, signed it and sent it off. "I just pretended I never got the first one," he admits.

He also sent a six-page letter to Vice President Al Gore. The White House responded by sending out a team of negotiators to meet with the governor. In one day, the deal was struck.

Satisfied that he'd accomplished something no other state had, Kitzhaber shifted his focus to the work itself. But almost immediately, some of the state's most credible organizations, led by the Oregon Natural Resources Council and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations, sued the Fisheries Service. They said the agency had abrogated its responsibility by assuming the Oregon Plan would be sufficient to save the coho. After deliberating for half a year, U.S. Magistrate Janice Stewart ruled in their favor this summer.

The governor was furious. Just weeks before, in his small, wood-paneled office, he had been confident that the court would accept the NMFS decision. "I don't think we'll lose the lawsuit," he had said. "If we do, the timber industry and a lot of other players will walk away. They won't do their voluntary measures. The plan will be null and void. But I don't think we'll lose."

Two wrongs make a right

He was wrong, pretty much on all counts.

The Oregon Plan's reliance on the willingness of timber companies to do what they've never been willing to before had been the crux of the issue all along. It was the one thing more than all others that riled and raised distrust among the environmentalists. They had gone along with much of the process, but they left the table when it became clear the plan would rely on voluntary habitat protection by private landowners, including timber companies.

From the governor's point of view, this was the plan's real strength: the readiness of individuals and companies to make amends on their own land. The federal government only controls about 35 percent of the forests and grazing land in coastal watersheds. Private holdings make up the rest. Kitzhaber argued that "the standard under the Endangered Species Act for private landowners is basically that you just can't do anything that "takes' any more of the endangered fish. It doesn't require private landowners to do any real watershed restoration. But the habitat needs restoration, and 65 percent of it is privately owned. The whole plan is based on getting people to the table, giving them ownership, and then helping them go further than they have to go."

The governor figured the Oregon Plan was set to do more for the coho than a federal recovery plan ever could. "It takes about 50 to 60 percent of the woods out of production in the Coast Range," he explained. "The feds could never get that kind of a cutback. The way you make change is by involving the landowners who are affected."

The environmentalists didn't buy it.

"I like Gov. Kitzhaber a lot. I think everything he says is sincere. But his coho plan does more to protect the timber industry than it does to protect coho habitat," says long-time salmon advocate Bill Bakke, director of The Native Fish Society - one of the groups that sued over the Oregon Plan.

"We got into this mess because of the voluntary efforts on the part of special interest groups," Bakke points out. "It can't be just voluntary."

Judge Stewart had agreed. "Voluntary actions, like those planned in the future, are necessarily speculative," she wrote. "Therefore, voluntary or future conservation efforts by a state should be given no weight in the listing decision."

The governor ordered his state to appeal and asked for a stay until the appeal was ruled on. He was particularly concerned because the state tax on timber activities, intended to help fund the recovery effort, had a "fail-safe" mechanism - if the coho were listed, the tax was terminated the same month. The judge called that "a self-inflicted wound" by the state. The stay was denied.

Then the Fisheries Service also filed an appeal and asked for a stay. The judge denied it as well.

On August 3, Oregon's coastal coho were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Soon afterward, some of the bigger timber companies announced they'd voluntarily continue to support the recovery effort and the governor's plan. They even called for a special session of the state Legislature, which had already adjourned, to restore the tax that had automatically lapsed. In this election year, they are clearly standing behind Kitzhaber.

The environmentalists regrouped around him, too. Bolstered by the federal mandate, most have announced their willingness to work with the governor and his plan.

Kitzhaber had been wrong twice: He had bet that he would win, and he hadn't. And he was sure the timber companies would back off if there was a listing, and they didn't. But doubly wrong, he ended up with the right outcome: After a year-long battle that he lost, he is closer now than ever to the consensus he needs to rebuild coastal coho runs.

From apolitical to politician

In some ways, this had been the perfect issue to frame the character and test the mettle of John Kitzhaber, a progressive Democrat from resource-based southern Oregon who is running for re-election in a state currently controlled by Republicans.

Until he was 21 and a junior at Dartmouth in 1968, John Kitzhaber admits he was "totally apolitical." He'd grown up in Roseburg, Ore., in the heart of logging country, and his dreams generally found him knee-deep in a cold creek, fly rod in hand, line arcing low, intersecting glints of slanted sunlight just clearing treetops. Sometimes it was the Rogue River. Other times it was the Umpqua. Always it was an Oregon stream.

He liked being alone, still does. And he was shy, and still is, to the degree that being in large groups of people can make him uncomfortable even now.

But in April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. "For reasons I still don't understand, that really jarred me," Kitzhaber says. "What really impressed me about Dr. King was his dedication to non-violence and civil disobedience. He wasn't rejecting the need for laws, and he wasn't objecting to the fact that people who broke the laws should be punished. He did what he did and expected to go to jail because the laws were unjust."

Then, a few months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed, a leader who, Kitzhaber says, "had been giving voice to some of the moral questions about the war and about the farm workers in California and representing other voiceless groups of Americans."

King and Kennedy shaped Kitzhaber in ways he hadn't anticipated. While he went on to become an emergency room physician, he also decided to get involved in politics. "Those two men demonstrated to me that you can make a huge difference working with the system," he says. "I think a lot of groups have forgotten that today," he adds, with the reference unstated, but fairly clearly directed at the environmental groups that opposed him.

Kitzhaber ran for the Oregon House of Representatives in 1978 and won. Next he ran for the state Senate and won again. He had some big allies in Roseburg's timber industry, but he was earning a reputation in the rest of the state as well.

He wasn't viewed as a progressive, nor as an environmentalist. Dick Benner, who heads Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development, and has been a friend and rafting partner of Kitzhaber's for decades, remembers that "being from Roseburg and downstate worked against him in the Legislature. He wasn't automatically accepted by the liberal Democrats from Portland. He had to round up moderate and right-wing Democrats to get his votes."

But one liberal Democrat from Portland accepted him immediately. Former State Sen. Ted Hallock, whose political fame in Oregon rests, not wholly, but most significantly, on his having engineered passage in 1973 of the state's "Senate Bill 100' - the first and still most comprehensive land-use planning legislation ever passed - befriended the young physician-turned-politician. They had met while Kitzhaber was still practicing in the emergency room in Roseburg, and Hallock's advertising agency was representing the hospital. "Kitzhaber was tomorrow's horse," says Hallock, a wiry, and famously ornery 77-year-old.

"John understood then and still understands now how the timber industry works, of course," Hallock says. "He knows those people down there. But that isn't the secret of why he has been so good, and good for this state. And John and I disagree about this. John Kitzhaber believes in consensus. Me, I'm an autocrat. That's probably why I'm retired, and he's governor. Consensus can be fine, and maybe my Senate Bill 100 is an example, but I said to him once, "You know consensus, John, is a substitute for leadership." And I quoted Maggie Thatcher and that really pissed him off. He wasn't a fan of Margaret Thatcher."

Maybe Kitzhaber was just determined to prove Thatcher and Hallock wrong. From the beginning, he was able to drive decisions by "crossing the floor." "He wasn't keeping score like a lot of politicians," says Benner. "In the ER, he learned teamwork and problem solving. That's how he likes to operate. He thrives in an emergency. He likes to pull people together to solve problems. When he wins one, he doesn't run to the reporters and TV crews like some politicians. He gets a few of the people who worked on it together in his office, pulls out a bottle of Wild Turkey and passes out the paper cups."

Picking his strategies

For Kitzhaber, consensus and collaboration have usually been successful strategies. In 1985, he was voted Senate president by his colleagues, and he was later re-elected to that office, one of the highest in the state, four times, tying the century's record. His years in the state Senate leadership afforded him the opportunity to move natural-resource policies that he viewed as critical: the state's first bill to protect minimum stream flows, the first wild-fish protections, hydropower development controls and a substantial rewriting of the state's Forest Practices Act.

But some of Kitzhaber's relatively smooth rule as president of the Senate stems from the fact that his party led the Legislature, and then-governors, Neil Goldschmidt and Barbara Roberts, also Democrats, shared many of his values. When he was elected governor in 1994, the political balance in the Legislature had shifted far to the right. In this new political context, Kitzhaber has had to govern by being deliberative and persistent - and by invoking his veto power more than any other Oregon governor.

Hallock says the Legislature gives in some of the time because "his speeches are so goddamned detailed and dull. They vote for him to get him to shut up."

Roy Hemmingway, Kitzhaber's lead staffer on state salmon issues and a former advisor to two other Oregon governors, one Republican and one Democrat, concurs. "John's leadership style is encyclopedic," he says. "At weekly staff meetings, if you give a one-line summary of what you've been doing, he'll fill in. He'll turn to the rest of the staff and explain the background and importance of what you're saying. It takes a huge amount of work. He reads everything. He understands all the issues - not just salmon, but health care and education and transportation - all of them."

And he takes notes. He carries little notebooks wherever he goes and, when he returns to his office, he lines them up on his desk like medical charts awaiting his review.

At a meeting last spring with some of the coastal watershed volunteers, Kitzhaber shook hands, gave an opening five-minute overview and then asked people to tell him how the work was going. The big room at the Tillamook County Fairgrounds was full - maybe 100 people - and there was no shortage of opinions. One after another, people rose to speak their minds. Ranchers, restaurant owners, former fishers who lost their jobs when the salmon started to disappear all stood in their places and lauded or critiqued the governor's plan and how it was playing out in their communities. The governor took it all down. He asked questions. Wanted more details. At the end, he summarized. He recited back from his notes everything he'd heard them say. He even asked whether he'd missed anything. He hadn't.

Steve Fick, who runs a fish-processing plant in Astoria, at the northern edge of Oregon's Coast, suggested other politicians ought to follow "Uncle John's lead. He doesn't just take notes," Fick says. "He really understands this stuff. Politicians like Ron Wyden (Oregon's Democratic senator) have no idea what we're talking about. I asked Ron a question he didn't understand, and he tried to change the subject to health care."

"What's overlooked about Kitzhaber," says salmon advocate Bakke, "is that, one, he's a medical doctor, so he has a science background, and two, he's a river rat, he loves to fish for salmon, steelhead and trout. Most politicians don't have that kind of background, so they don't necessarily appreciate things as deeply as he does." Kitzhaber, Bakke says, "isn't somebody who walked on the scene as a politician and got enlightenment. He was already convinced. Now he's using the power of his office to try to solve problems. He really believes in social change and the power of the individual, and he's a good example of an individual who makes a difference."

Kitzhaber's belief in the power of the individual earns him as much criticism as praise. A lot of people think he's too idealistic to really be successful at politics, too "unsophisticated."

Stories about his lack of finesse are becoming part of his young legend. People love telling how he had to rent a tuxedo when he was invited to the White House, how his big cowboy belt buckle sets off metal detectors in airports and offices back in D.C., how even now, he goes off fishing by himself, without guards. He even collects Louis L'Amour books and has an old western six-shooter he's proud of.

"If it was 1898 instead of 1998," Hallock asserts, "he'd be tall in the saddle. Today, instead of a saddle, it might be his Navy surplus rubber raft. But people who say he's not sophisticated are just cynics. He is a Western Man. He is not an imitation. He doesn't walk into a room with his jeans on to dazzle women. He's just uncomfortable in suits. I don't know why. Kitzhaber is a believer in good governmental policy. Not in regimental ties, cocktail parties, political horseshit and game-playing. He has a healthier posture on government than any of them."

"In a way, Kitzhaber's a freak," offers Bakke. "He's a person who believes that as a politician he can help accomplish social change. He understands that the government's not going to save salmon. When you get Republicans in office, they're good at rolling back environmental protections. When you get Democrats in, they're apologetic about doing things for the environment. The environment loses no matter who's in. Government isn't set up to maintain productive ecosystems. It's set up to exploit ecosystems and render them into commodities."

Changes on the ground

It is exactly that concern, says the governor's salmon man, Hemmingway, that motivates Kitzhaber. "Bakke is right. You don't recover salmon by issuing orders from Salem (Oregon's capital). But you don't recover them with orders from D.C. either. People on the ground have to want to do it. You can't make them do it. You get it done through long, hard work, stream reach by stream reach and gravel bar by gravel bar."

In the year between the Oregon Plan's adoption and its rejection by the court, volunteers and local communities in Oregon completed more than 1,200 watershed restoration projects. They fenced off about 300 miles of stream banks to protect them from livestock. They planted thousands of trees along shorelines. And they opened access to roughly 400 miles of streams for salmon spawning.

"That's what gripes me about the folks who filed the lawsuit," says Kitzhaber. "If they think just listing the coho down there is going to bring about this kind of on-the-ground change, they're crazy. You don't get that by pointing a gun at people's heads and saying, "Do it or I'll shoot." What you get with a listing is private landowners hunkering down, fighting the regulations in court. Not much happens on the ground to save fish. When you get them engaged in a very positive way, they can actually do things that go beyond the letter of what's required under the Endangered Species Act. That's what they're doing here."

And they're doing it throughout the state, not just along coastal rivers. The best way to understand this is to walk beside a stream in trouble.

Visit the Mohawk River, for instance. The Mohawk isn't a coastal stream, but it has many of the same problems. It flows out of the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in west-central Oregon, folds itself into the McKenzie, which in turn leads to the Willamette and then the Columbia. For nearly a mile of its 26-mile run, the Mohawk River slides alongside the J-2 Cattle Ranch. A fairly spare, 65-acre spread, the J-2 has been owned and operated since the early 1980s by former Californian Jim Jaberg. From the road at least, the ranch is not what you'd expect an early-stage, environmental showcase to look like. An old timber-framed open cattle shed and an assortment of other structures form a cul-de-sac. Farmyard dogs of unknown heritage bark out their frenzy when you pull into the rough dirt and gravel drive.

From one of the buildings, a door slams, and Jim Jaberg, attired as Oregonians are in any season - baseball cap, plaid flannel shirt unbuttoned over a T-shirt, jeans and knee-high rubber boots, a big plastic mug of coffee in hand - begins the short walk across his yard. He has the dry, darkened skin and clear eyes of a man who makes his living outdoors, pretty much year round, without hired hands.

Talking by the car for a few minutes, he explains that "logging up in the high country had muddied this river all up, and the press of houses and towns continues the problem."

When Jaberg was out shopping for what would eventually become his J-2 Ranch, he probably eyed the Mohawk as the perfect watering hole for his future herd. It's the kind of river that would lend itself to easy grazing. On his side, the bank's not all that steep, and the riparian zone - what we'd call the beach - is flat and broad, stretching in a gentle incline for more than a city block. It's easily wide enough for Jaberg's 60 cattle to linger on a hot afternoon and drink their fill, which is what they did until this year.

Today, leading the way to that beach, Jaberg lowers his boot onto a live electric wire so we can step over. It's his way of drawing attention to the fence he built to keep his cattle off the river front. The fence takes more than five acres of his best land out of production. He now waters the cattle from troughs.

Closer to the river we see his next project - a miniature forest of two-foot tall trees planted along the shoreline. There are hundreds of them, many wrapped in plastic mesh with bamboo sticks holding them upright. The Northwest Youth Corps planted the first hundred to shade and cool the water and help stabilize the banks. Then Jaberg and his daughter, Jamie, got interested, and they planted another 200 or 300 trees themselves.

Here Jaberg is apologetic and a little embarrassed. "I need to study more about these kinds of trees," he admits. "I'm from southern and central California. I know how to grow oranges and nut and fruit trees. But this forest stuff, it's a new ballgame."

Twenty years from now, Jaberg's new trees will indeed be a forest, shading this stretch of the Mohawk, dropping the water temperature and making it much more habitable for salmon.

With the kind of restoration work going on at Jaberg's, the Mohawk, a problem-ridden offshoot of the otherwise spectacular McKenzie River, could provide healthy habitat for wild upper Willamette River spring chinook, another species being considered for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Long considered a "timber factory," the uplands of the Mohawk have been badly abused. Its banks have been clear-cut and its water silted up by logging operations and other development. In some reaches, livestock crushed or consumed anything that attempted to grow. Shaved nearly clean of trees, shrubs and other plants that could shade, stabilize and help clarify the water, the Mohawk hasn't seen a spring chinook in decades. But that could change.

"This thing will work," Jaberg says reassuringly. "This is forcing all of us to do things we should do that'll be positive. I've got everything I own invested in this place. My kid's future. But I think we'll see fish back up here."

Testing the waters

Does he look forward to someday catching chinook along the stream? "I just couldn't," he says, "not after what we're going to do in our lifetimes to get these runs going again. We'll come down and look and appreciate ours, but if we need to fish, we'll probably go somewhere else that's dedicated to fishing and leave ours alone out here."

People like Jaberg give people like Bakke hope. "If they make the investment in habitat protection on their land, they're going to demand that they have fish to take advantage of that habitat," Bakke says. "They will be real strong advocates for salmon. That will move society into a different frame of reference. Salmon won't just be something you take, some commodity," he says. "They'll be something you nurture. We've got to get to the nurturing part of the equation. But it will take a long time. It's going to take several Kitzhaber-type administrations. We can't count on that."

But Kitzhaber says it's not about him or his policies or who eventually becomes governor. He says it's not even about salmon. "This whole thing is about how people in Oregon acquire a deeper level of understanding that how they live their lives affects the environment in which they live. It's about changing the culture."

In fact, he's expressed a mild degree of enthusiasm for the recent Endangered Species Act listing of steelhead trout on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers. That listing includes the City of Portland, and it's the first major urban listing in the nation. Kitzhaber sees it as an opportunity to bring the cultural change of "ecosystem awareness' to a city.

He points out that "most listings are rural. They happen to people living in the woods or on farms. But most of the support for the Endangered Species Act in Oregon, and I think nationally, is in urban centers. If implementation of the Endangered Species Act proves to be extraordinarily onerous to that metropolitan area, you could see a backlash of those same people who support the Endangered Species Act in the first place. So it is important we make this work."

The governor is already setting a new table, sending out the invitations and gathering his team to shape this next strategy. In the city, the issue will be water quality, not habitat repair. The habitat the steelhead need for spawning and rearing is mostly far upstream, in rural areas, where local watershed groups are forming to address it. But the migratory fish will need to swim past Portland, and there the water is terribly dirtied by Portlanders. Sewage overflows pour directly into the river. The Port of Portland legally dumps toxic wastes on a tiny island on the upstream edge of town. The same island is the site of a massive silt-producing gravel operation. All of these and more subtle pollutants routinely sully a stream that will now be called on to support the restoration of wild steelhead runs.

This is the kind of challenge that drives the governor. "How do people in an urban setting become engaged in improving their own water quality?" he asks. "How do they become aware of what they put down their drains, what they put on their lawns? We don't have a template for this, so we'll have to develop one."

These are not typical questions for a politician just weeks away from election day. But then Kitzhaber is not really campaigning. It's not out of arrogance, although there's little doubt he will win - he's more popular with voters than ever before. It is just that he is too busy with more important things.

"Kitzhaber may go down as the greatest governor in Oregon history," says Hallock. "Sometimes I think Oregon has been singled out by the Divine Presence, and this is as mystical as I'm going to get. But I think about some of the other politicians this state has had, some truly great men, and I look at Kitzhaber, and I think he's been more vigorous in protecting this state than any of them. If the voters give him this second and necessarily last term because of term limits, he'll do far more dramatic and important things in the next four years. If the voters are willing, they will enable this one man to govern as effectively as anyone possibly could. He will govern as only he can govern. And I say - watch out!'

Carlotta Collette writes from Milwaukie, Oregon.

Sidebar articles:

He fought Oregon's developers

A tale of two - or three - Oregons

Oregon statistics

Are the West's governors turning over a new (green) leaf?"

This profile of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is part of a series on the political dynamics of the West. It has included articles on the decline of the Old West (4/27/98), the political structure of Wyoming (7/7/97; 7/6/98) and the Utah Olympics (3/16/98).

The series is funded by grants from the Wyss Foundation, the Ruth Mott Fund and the Kendall Foundation.

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