Peter Daugherty, Oregon’s state forester and the leader of the long-struggling Department of Forestry, has submitted his resignation to the state board that oversees the department, effective May 31.
Daugherty has led the agency since 2016, and his tenure has been marked by deep financial problems within the department, a dysfunctional relationship with the Board of Forestry and the loss of state lawmakers’ confidence, even as the agency is looking for a massive infusion of new resources to better respond to the state’s increasingly severe wildfire seasons.
The Oregonian in recent years documented many of the agency’s troubles in its Failing Forestry series.
Daugherty’s resignation comes in the wake of a scathing report from an outside accounting consultant, MGO, that described a fundamental lack of financial controls and oversight within the agency. The report was reviewed in a hearing this week before the Natural Resources subcommittee of Ways and Means, prompting some incredulity from lawmakers, who said they were aware of the problems in general but found details the firm uncovered eye-opening and troubling.
His resignation also comes after Gov. Kate Brown was able to remake the state forestry board, which is responsible for hiring and firing the state forester. The previous board had put Daugherty on what amounted to a performance improvement plan, but the new board chair, Jim Kelly, said it was time for a change.
“You cannot have an effective state forester unless they have the confidence of the governor and the Legislature,” Kelly said, “and clearly that isn’t the case with Peter.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, laid a good deal of the blame for the agency’s problems on the Board of Forestry.
“It’s no secret that I’m not a supporter of having a Board of Forestry,” she said. “I don’t support that. I believe the Legislature should be overseeing the Department of Forestry. The board has been given this awesome responsibility by the public … and I’m concerned the board did not do its duties of overseeing the department.”
Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, said MGO’s report was just the beginning of the actions that need to be taken.
Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said many of the shortcomings called out in the report had been noted in an audit of the department by the Secretary of State in 2015.
“We are six years later dealing with the same damn issue and I don’t see any improvement,” he said. “And so either the Legislature needs to step in and do something dramatic or … I really appreciate (the report), but it just solidifies and exemplifies what we’ve been dealing with for years. I’m just so frustrated that I don’t see any improvement.”
The airing of the report may have been the last straw for Daugherty. In his resignation letter, he said he had discussed the decision with the governor’s office and decided it would be in the best interest of the newly reconstituted board and the department to select a new state forester. Daugherty said his last effective day in office would be May 28.
In an email to staff, Daugherty said leading the department had been the highlight of his long career in forestry. He said the agency’s “executive team is committed to supporting the transition and helping prepare Oregon’s next State Forester for the challenges and rewards that come with this role, both of which are immense.”
The board’s control over the employment of the state forester left the governor’s office and legislators with less control as the agency’s finances spun out of control in recent years and the board took no definitive action. Lawmakers had, however, demanded that Daugherty begin submitting monthly financial reports to the co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee.
Brown, meanwhile, also expressed deep frustration last fall with her inability to remake the board and bring stronger financial expertise to its ranks, as lawmakers from timber-dependent counties joined Republicans to kill her slate of board nominees. That changed this spring, as the Senate confirmed three of her nominees to the board, effectively remaking it.
“The board will soon meet to discuss leadership during this time of transition,” said Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Brown. “While the board has statutory authority in appointing the State Forester, the governor is interested in a national search for someone who can further drive the agency as a national leader in fighting wildfires, while at the same time adapting to new technology and changing conditions on the ground.”
Merah said there were no severance payments accompanying Daugherty’s departure. His salary is just over $182,000 a year.
Reached at his home in Eastern Oregon, Kelly, the new board chair, said Daugherty’s decision to resign was reached mutually and that the board would look to hire an interim replacement with strong financial expertise, as the agency needs to get its financial house in order before it can do anything else effectively.
Kelly said he thinks the dynamics on the board have already changed.
“There’s reason to believe we have the chance to create a highly functional board and have that trust reestablished,” he said.
Bob Van Dyk, the Oregon policy director of the Wild Salmon Center, and a frequent critic of the department, said Daugherty’s departure was long overdue.
“Under Daugherty’s leadership, critical voices on the Board of Forestry were marginalized and bullied,” he said in an emailed statement. “Oregon faces enormous challenges on our forests to protect water quality, manage fire, and respond to climate change. I hope the Board can take this moment to turn the page and move the agency into the 21st century.”
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