Is Timber Unity becoming disunified?

Splits emerge in the organization that was formed more than three years ago around rural resource issues 

August 4, 2022 5:45 am

The state capital building adorned with the Oregon Pioneer with downtown Salem in the background

The rural activist group Timber Unity recently passed its third birthday. How many more it may have has become a notable question – and whether, even now, it is becoming Timber Disunity.

The group started as a coalition of farmers, wood industry workers and truck drivers, backed financially by several businesses in that field, aiming to support people and business in the resource industry politically and sometimes otherwise. (It has engaged in some philanthropic work too.)

In June 2019, several truckers and loggers reacted to a “cap and trade” bill – a regulatory effort aimed at limiting airborne pollution – planned at the Oregon Legislature. They saw it as hazardous to the businesses they owned or which employed them, and decided to protest it. The name Timber Unity was devised, with a mission it has described as “the voice for rural NW values, defending those who make, grow, and build things for us all.” 

A convoy to Salem was organized, and the group had some early successes. It drew support from Betsy Johnson, then a centrist Democratic state senator with close ties to the resource industries. 

But the organization evolved into a state politics factor – a flashpoint in this year’s elections – and into the bitter core of national politics, at the Jan. 6 insurrections. Now it may be fragmenting, and the whole journey could end before the group reaches the age of a kindergartner. 

For now, it is a prominent and significant political organization in Oregon. Its signage can be seen all over the state – you can’t miss it if you take a long road trip through the state’s open spaces. Some communities seem devoted to it, too. In the near-coastal city of Toledo, where its signs have been easy to spot, the group was given a key to the city from the mayor. 

But its trajectory sounds like a story of ambition, and what can come of it. 

TU’s founders began to conclude they needed a more standing organization to push effectively for their interests. They linked with political operatives, including former legislator Julie Parrish of West Linn and current Yamhill County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer, and TU began to transform. Timber Unity became an association, a political action committee, a trademark and a hashtag. 

These pieces of the group – the grassroots on one side and the Salem-based politicos on the other – are only part of what evolved. 

Its leaders began associating with far-right groups, including advocates of the QAnon conspiracy theory. That was the subject of a February 2020 report from the group Oregon Wild which said, “the Timber Unity leadership is simultaneously harnessing the energy of these extremist elements for their own benefit, while proclaiming that they are a legitimate representative of rural Oregon.” 

Those links became highly nationally visible when TUs spokeswoman, Angelita Sanchez, was among those attending the insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington Jan. 6, 2021. She said in a statement at the time that she was “not part of the siege,” though she posted videos of the insurrection on social media sites. She also live streamed from the Oregon statehouse when protesters trespassed there. 

Within weeks after that, Toledo City Councilor Bill Dalbey, irritated with his town’s close association with Timber Unity, circulated a letter, published in area newspapers, about the group. 

“Unfortunately, Timber Unity seems to be a magnet for fringe groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, Patriot Prayer, the 3 Percenters and other so-called “patriot movement” groups, and the white nationalist group the Alt-Right. Also represented is QAnon, a group that believes the world is ruled by a cabal of child-molesting Satanists, and only Donald Trump is trying to stop them. All this is well documented, not idle accusations,” he wrote. 

All of that has ranged far afield from the original idea of local advocacy for Oregon rural resource workers. Internal conflicts have ranged across other kinds of issues, too, such as when last December the political action committee and the association each engaged lawyers in a dispute over use of the TU trademark. 

In February, one of the group’s original founders, Clatskanie log truck driver Jeff Leavy, announced a new name for the group: Oregon Natural Resource Industries & Associated Families. He said in a Facebook post, “We’re going to keep organizing events to get the word out about the challenges our community is facing. We’ll endorse candidates, have members who participate and vote on what we do, have elections where you can sit on this board, scholarships, write policy, lobby, member benefits and more.”

This has the feel of a schism, a deep split in what had been for three years a major political player in Oregon. That may complicate political life for the people who started Timber Unity in the first place.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.