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John Kitzhaber cut his teeth politically as the fly fisherman from Oregon timber country, the emergency room doctor who could schmooze equally well with environmentalists and timber barons.


Kate Brown, who replaces Kitzhaber as governor next week, brings more of an urban orientation to Mahonia Hall, as a longtime Portland resident with limited experience in natural resource issues.

Their respective approaches to rural Oregon and the environment could be among the biggest differences between the two.

“We’re pretty confident that she is not only going to be a pretty strong advocate for the environment, but an even stronger one” than Kitzhaber, says Jessica Moskovitz, communications director for the Oregon Environmental Council. Brown averaged 87 out of 100 on environmental report cards issued by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters during her years in the Oregon House and Senate, Moskovitz notes. As Oregon secretary of state, Brown championed the creation of Benefit Corporations, which allows companies to legally prioritize environmental protections, even if it means they’ll be less profitable.

But Brown is more of an “open book” when it comes to environmental policies related to Oregon forests, says Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild.

“She hasn’t weighed in on our issues,” says timber industry leader Tom Partin, executive director of the American Forest Resource Council based in Portland. He’s worked closely on forest issues with Kitzhaber but hasn’t had much association with Brown.

“We need to get to know her better,” Partin says.

Kitzhaber, starting with his days representing Roseburg in the Oregon Legislature, was known for his keen understanding of forest and salmon issues, and his ability to work with both sides in those battles.

“The governor’s always had a pretty strong base” in the timber industry, Partin says. “I believe our governor understands our forest health problems and our forest management problems.”

While serving and leading the Oregon Senate, Kitzhaber helped shepherd rewrites of the Oregon Forest Practices Act.

But his biggest environmental achievement was helping craft and pass the Oregon Salmon Plan as governor. At a time when the federal government was threatening to list coastal coho salmon species under the Endangered Species Act, Kitzhaber pleaded for a state-level approach that relied on volunteer watershed councils. Using dedicated funds from the Oregon State Lottery, the watershed councils bring together industry, anglers, environmentalists and average citizens to do restoration projects along Oregon’s rivers and streams.

Environmentalists hail the cooperative spirit and volunteer collaboration in the watershed councils, but say more regulations was needed to protect streams and forests.

“That was a mixed bag,” Stevens says, much like Kitzhaber’s overall environmental legacy.

The Oregon Forest Practices Act has led to overuse of pesticides and clearcuts, and a lack of wildlife and stream protections, Stevens says. “We have steep-slope logging; the only thing we protect against is human safety,” not the potential damage to streams and wildlife, Stevens says.

California and Washington — even Idaho — now have stronger forest practices acts than Oregon, he says.

Stevens says Kitzhaber has been a consistent and strong advocate for expanding Oregon’s wilderness areas. But Kitzhaber hasn’t prioritized environmental protection since he returned to Mahonia Hall for his third term in 2011, he says.

As some of Oregon’s rural counties tilted toward bankruptcy, Kitzhaber sought to increase logging as a way to boost their revenues. “He’s been much more interested in going back to the logging economy of the ‘80s, rather than moving us forward,” Stevens says.

In contrast, Partin notes that Oregon salmon runs are doing much better lately, and says the Oregon Forest Practices Act is performing just fine. The 2015 Legislature may consider changes in the act that are not warranted, Partin says. “That’s worrisome to us.”

In recent years, Kitzhaber has championed a bill to require lower-carbon alternatives to motor vehicle fuel, which has been dubbed the top environmental bill before the 2015 Legislature.

“I don’t think the transition (to Gov.ernor Brown) affects the agenda significantly,” says Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council.

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