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ProPublica Reporting Projects Recognized for Outstanding Environmental Reporting

Columbia Journalism School announced on Wednesday that “The Cutting,” a project of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting, won the 2021 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. Another project, “Where Will Everyone Go?” a piece with the New York Times Magazine and supported by the Pulitzer Center, was named a finalist. The award recognizes journalists whose reporting makes an exceptional contribution to the public’s understanding of environmental issues.

“The Cutting,” by reporters Rob Davis of The Oregonian/OregonLive and Tony Schick of Oregon Public Broadcasting, was the first systemic investigation into the Oregon timber industry’s unseen role in hollowing out the state’s rural communities. Also contributing to the project were data journalist Lylla Younes and engagement reporter Maya Miller of ProPublica.

Reporters examined the industry’s ownership shift toward Wall Street real estate trusts and investment funds. The news organizations scrutinized a series of decisions by lawmakers that permanently cut timber taxes, created a tax-funded agency to promote logging and weakened environmental regulations.

The reporting team examined ownership and tax data to determine that a series of state tax cuts for the timber industry cost counties at least $3 billion in the past three decades. The reporters also revealed that at least half of the counties lost more money from tax cuts on private forests than from environmental protections that reduced logging on federal lands.

Upon receiving 1.4 million digital property tax records, the reporters teamed with Younes and worked with county tax assessors to create a first-of-its-kind dataset that allowed for a fair and accurate comparison. Since many large forestland owners conceal ownership by using different company names, reporters pored over corporate filings to confirm business connections.

The result was an unprecedented look at how ownership of Oregon’s private forests had become concentrated with a handful of Wall Street investors and wealthy timber families, and how the tax burden for these corporations was in some cases 100 times lower than for local residents. The journalists reached more than 600 Oregonians through a statewide engagement campaign online, on the radio and in local newspapers throughout the state’s timber country, allowing them to connect deeply personal stories from communities most affected by the one-sided relationship.

The work led reporters to other key revelations:

• As lawmakers cut timber taxes, they funneled tax money to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, a public agency that worked to discredit academic research and acted as a lobbying and public relations arm for the timber industry.

• During Oregon’s worst wildfire season in decades, data showed clear-cut timber plantations burned hotter than federal forests, undermining claims by lobbyists and lawmakers that logging decreased the destruction of wildfires.

• Oregon lawmakers failed to change logging laws that state regulators, scientists and the federal government said were insufficient to protect clean water, leaving small towns with millions of dollars in additional costs.

Following the news organizations’ reporting on OFRI, Gov. Kate Brown called for an audit, which was released last week by Oregon’s secretary of state. It found that OFRI misled the public by presenting a biased view of forestry and might have broken the law by trying to influence policy. In a written response to the audit, the agency’s director agreed to implement auditors’ recommendations by late 2022.

A spokesperson for Brown said the governor will work with lawmakers during the coming legislative session to determine necessary changes to the law that governs OFRI. During the 2021 legislative session that ended in June, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill that would have redirected part of OFRI’s budget to the Oregon Department of Forestry for projects including climate research in forests and educating smaller family forestland owners about the state’s logging laws. The measure failed in the Senate, where some lawmakers argued that they wanted to await the results of the audit.

In “Where Will Everyone Go?” a story by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine, with support from the Pulitzer Center, senior environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten showed how climate refugees might move across international borders as climate change makes certain areas unlivable. In a series of stories that followed, Lustgarten examined the warming of the planet and how climate change is beginning to push a mass climate migration of Americans, shifting perhaps millions of people and changing the way the country looks and works. Using a first-of-its-kind mathematical model to forecast the effects of climate change on the movements of communities, the stories explored the future of a world shaped by climate-driven migration and shared the experiences of people for whom this reality has already begun.

The 2021 Oakes Award winners and finalists will be honored with a ceremony and conversation on Sept. 20. See a list of all Oakes Award honorees here.

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