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Climate legislation protests in Pacific Northwest spotlight activist trucking group

With 60,000-plus members, Timber Unity seeks to quash greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

Timber Unity protesters rally against cap-and-trade legislation at the Oregon state capitol in February. Image: Linda Baker

Climate legislation protests in the Pacific Northwest are shining a spotlight on a new trucking and logging activist group that has put down roots in a region with a long history of conflict between rural timber communities and urban environmentalists.

Earlier this week about 400 truck drivers rallied at the Washington state capitol in Olympia against a bill they argue would hike fuel prices and threaten their businesses.

“The concern is cost,” said Todd Stoffel, the owner of a small log truck company in Washougal, Washington and a co-founder of Timber Unity Washington, an offshoot of a group in Oregon that has been holding protests to try to prevent emissions legislation from passing into law. 

Those protests bore fruit. The Oregon legislative session came to an abrupt close yesterday, effectively killing a controversial bill that would have capped emissions from polluting industries, including transportation fuel providers. 

The session ended after Republican legislators, galvanized by the Timber Unity rallies, walked out of the capitol last week, denying a quorum Oregon state law requires for the legislature to conduct business.

Timber Unity protesters rally in Salem, Oregon (Image: Linda Baker)

The Washington proposal, aimed at curbing tailpipe emissions, has met with equally vehement opposition. Stoffel’s fuel bill would increase by around $6,300 a year if the legislation passes, he told FreightWaves. “The money is just not there.” 

The timber wars

Conflicts pitting rural natural resource workers against urban groups favoring environmental regulations have been a fixture in the Pacific Northwest since at least the 1980s, when efforts to preserve the spotted owl’s habitat helped bring an end to logging on federal land in Oregon. 

As the environmental debate here shifts from logging to greenhouse gas emissions, Timber Unity, a group with 60,000-plus members, has emerged as the next generation of conservative rural activism.

“Timber Unity looks very similar to groups that organized in the late 1980s and 1990s called the Yellow Ribbon Coalition that organized in response to a lot of the legislation that struck down logging,” said Steven Beda, a professor at the University of Oregon who studies Pacific Northwest labor and environmental history. 

Then, as now, logging trucks were potent symbols of the timber wars.

”A lot of the folks involved in Timber Unity are younger,” Beda explained, “but some lived through the spotted owl conflict. So their understanding of protests and politics are really shaped by that era. Because the logging truck became such an important symbol in that era, they are carrying that forward into the present day.”

A former union pipefitter, Stoffel got into the logging truck business after an injury forced him to look for another job. When he couldn’t find another union position, “I had to do something,” he said. “So I got my CDL [commercial driving license].” 

The career change shifted his politics from center left to right. “I didn’t see the costs associated with doing business,” he said. “When my name went from the back of the check to the front of the check, my whole perspective changed.”

Shifting political alliances

That shift dovetails with key realignments in the timber industry over the past century, according to Beda. “For most of the 20th century, most rural counties voted for Democrats because Democrats were aligned with organized labor,” he said.

But as the Democratic party started to turn away from rural areas, timber workers began to forge alliances with Republicans and conservative politicians.

Simultaneously, the big unions, including the staunchly Democratic International Woodworkers Union (IWU), which merged with the International Association of Machinists in the 1990s, began to decline.

During the 1930s, timber workers battled corporate timber interests, calling on companies to practice environmentally-friendly timber management and support sustainable communities that would lead to healthy forests and jobs. 

By contrast, the modern day logging and truck protests, Beda said, are defined by partnerships between workers and employers, who joined forces to battle environmentalists.

The Oregon Trucking Association and the Washington Trucking Associations, the two major trucking associations in the Pacific Northwest, are among the most vocal opponents of state efforts to limit carbon emissions.

Adam Lardy shares those sentiments. A co-founder of Timber Unity, Lardy runs a log trucking business in rural Washington County, Oregon. He says he was inspired to act after he heard about Oregon’s clean diesel bill, which would have required all trucks to be upgraded with model 2010 or newer engines.  

“I spent my life savings on these trucks,” he said. He recalled meeting with Oregon senators and “not believing what was going on down there. Who the hell can afford to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a new log truck and trailer?”

Image: Adam Lardy

An alternate plan

Timber Unity supports efforts to reduce carbon emissions, said board member Tasha Webb. “It isn’t that we don’t want climate action,” she said. “We want to do it in a way where it doesn’t harm jobs, doesn’t raise taxes and uses existing [state] money.”

She pointed to the group’s four point climate action plan, a roadmap that calls for creating a “carbon sink” along state highways by planting trees and other vegetation. Timber Unity is also calling on Oregonians to shop local and for the state to stop shipping recyclables out of state. “The plan is every bit as aggressive as the bills we seek to defeat,” Webb said.

Supporters of cap-and-trade say these solutions are not a substitute for a government-imposed limit on emissions. And even as the group gains political clout, it is drawing scrutiny. A report published this week links Timber Unity to racial extremism and violence. 

Macroeconomic forces are also bearing down on an organization that faults environmental regulations for the challenges facing rural communities. “The log market is very volatile and right now it’s really in the tank,” Stoffel said. “The load pays what the mills say it pays, and if it’s not enough, then it’s tough cookies.”

Hedging against the downturn, Stofell recently bought a dump truck for hauling asphalt. Timber Unity, he said, is about employment in the “whole natural resource sector,” and “gives people a voice so their voice can be heard.”

In Oregon, where Democratic legislators are expected to mount yet another effort to pass a greenhouse gas bill, the message has come through, loud and clear.

Political power in the Northwest has pivoted toward cities, Beda said. But Timber Unity’s activism, he said “is something that has to be responded to.”

Update: This article has been updated to include a description of the Timber Unity climate action plan.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]