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Country Life

A Grassroots Anti-Environmentalist Movement Grows in Oregon

The rise of Timber Unity offers a worrying case study of how successful rural organizing can be when it’s bankrolled by the GOP.

Robin Loznak/ZUMA
In 2020, Kayleigh Johnson, whose father is a forester, joined thousands of protesters outside the State Capitol building in Salem, Oregon, to protest a proposed emissions bill.

When Jeff Leavy, a trucker from Clatskanie, Oregon, heard in mid-2019 that a timber mill in the neighboring county was shutting down its swing shift in part because of a proposed emissions bill, he considered it another blow to his industry. The legislation aimed to limit carbon dioxide emissions to the equivalent of 25,000 metric tons; companies emitting more would have to buy carbon credits at auction. The money made would then be invested back into communities, including rural ones, affected by climate change. By June, word was traveling in rural parts of the state that the bill, known as cap and trade, would decimate the timber industry. Leavy, who has been hauling for almost 20 years, believed it would allow China to trade carbon credits on the marketplace, thereby driving up the price and taking away local business. (This was not the case: Oregon wanted to join the Western Climate Initiative trading system, which includes only California and Quebec. Leavy claimed that Governor Kate Brown had had “several meetings with the Chinese” and that he’d “put two and two together.”)

The bill was on its way to the Democrat-led House, where it would later pass and head to the Senate for a vote. Galvanized by the news, Leavy implored people online to bring their rigs to the Capitol on June 6 in protest. “I don’t care if you are a beat up crummy, a shiny polished log truck, a empty flat bed, a low boy, a chip truck, it don’t matter!” he wrote. “Power in numbers! Please, take the time for our future! We can never let this happen! TIMBER UNITY.”

Over the next couple of weeks, the rallies grew. Alt-right figures showed up, including the state’s Three Percenters organization, a group that advocates gun ownership and resisting the federal government; Joey Nations, a former congressional candidate with ties to the pro-gun, pro-Trump group Patriot Prayer; and State of Jefferson secessionists. County Republicans sold hot dogs and bagged chips from folding tables. At a June 19 rally, Republican Carl Wilson, the House minority leader, said he was sick of Portland imposing rules on rural Oregonians. “We know that cap kills jobs,” he said. The next day, 11 Republican state senators walked out of the Capitol and went into hiding to deny Democrats the quorum necessary to pass the legislation. Governor Brown ordered state troopers to track them down. Some went to Idaho. One hopped from state to state. Brian Boquist, at the time a Republican representing District 12 (he’s since become an independent), told a news station, “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.”

On June 25, the bill was pronounced dead. Thousands had mobilized in just two weeks. “I was like, what the hell? How did this happen?” said Seth Cotlar, a history professor at Willamette University who witnessed the protests. “Somewhere there’s a massive amount of intentional coordination.”

Since its founding three years ago, Timber Unity has offered a notably successful model of anti-government organizing aimed at local political takeover. Of the 15 county commissioners Timber Unity endorsed in 2020, 12 were elected. That year, Angelita Sanchez, a co-director of the Timber Unity PAC who attended the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, won a City Council position in Sweet Home. In this year’s midterms, one of the group’s early supporters, Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator, is running for governor as an independent. Leavy told me that Johnson was one of the first people he called when he heard about the cap-and-trade bill. Later, he said, he “poked and prodded” Johnson about running for governor. Johnson’s gubernatorial platform derides extremism and political polarization, but her proclamations ring hollow, given her ties; at a Timber Unity rally, she held up a woodcut of the statehouse at the podium.

This past April, Timber Unity hosted a gubernatorial debate for 11 Republican primary candidates, at which candidate Brandon Merritt encouraged the crowd to chant, “Let’s go, Brandon,” and questions focused on the declining timber industry. During the primary season, the group endorsed 16 County Commission candidates. Sanchez, the PAC co-director, did not yet know as of July whether Timber Unity would endorse Johnson in the general election because of her more liberal voting record, but she said the group was throwing support behind at least two County Commission candidates, Ben West and Ryan Ceniga. (Ceniga’s website reads, “Our rural way of life is under attack from urban politicians.”) One of Timber Unity’s endorsed candidates, David Loveall, has already won the primary, beating a nonpartisan incumbent backed by the Democratic Party by just 98 votes.

Timber Unity’s success may exemplify a worrying trend. As Sergio Olmos at The Guardian observed, the far right is moving its focus from larger, centralized organizations and toward “regional venues where it can actually seek positions of office and take power.” The Anti-Defamation League is tracking over 100 “problematic political candidates” claiming to run for office nationally; their presence, the group argues, “signals an expanding mainstream acceptance of extreme beliefs and ideologies.” Ammon Bundy, who led the 2016 armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, launched the far-right People’s Rights Network in April 2020 in response to Covid protocols; the organization, which managed to put its “area assistants” on nationwide ballots, claims it now has 50,000 members. “To further contradict the idea that People’s Rights is an ‘anti-government’ network, gaining political and governmental power is part of the group’s program,” reported the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network. Endorsed by the convicted Trump adviser Roger Stone, Bundy is now running for governor of Idaho. Wendy Rogers, a member of the Oath Keepers militia who was elected to the Arizona state Senate in 2020, is running for reelection; she has already broken fundraising records. And across the country, a wave of conservative candidates have entered school board races.

Oregon is a decidedly blue state, where both the legislature and the governorship have been in Democratic hands for a decade. Nevertheless, Timber Unity has managed unmistakably to shape the state’s politics, and it may be writing the playbook, however inadvertently, for future anti-government wins in other states. In northern California this year, secessionists from the State of Jefferson, the militia-backed group that attended early Timber Unity rallies, backed the successful recall of an official on the Shasta County board of supervisors. The Shasta County win was one example of how blue-collar attitudes are moving further right, toward extremism. The change resembles that undergone by Leavy, who said he registered as a Democrat out of high school. Doni Chamberlain, a local reporter, told Harper’s Magazine that Redding, a town in Shasta County with lumber mills and “lots of blue-collar work,” used to lean mainly Democratic. “And then over the years as the mills closed, it shifted.”

How exactly did Timber Unity get to this point, and what can be learned from its rise? The coordination that so astonished Cotlar, the history professor, was primarily orchestrated by Julie Parrish, a political consultant and former state representative. She helped form a PAC in June 2019 and, a month later, a 501c (6) called the Timber Unity Association, a paid membership where members are encouraged to donate to the PAC. Andrew Miller, CEO of the Portland-based timber company Stimson Lumber and the owner of the mill that Leavy heard was cutting its swing shift, gave the PAC its first $5,000. Current GOP members vocally supported Timber Unity. “It was a lot like the Tea Party,” said Doug Moore, the executive director of Oregon League of Conservation Voters, an organization that supports pro-environment candidates. “You had business interests that rallied conservative Republican activists pretty significantly.”

Soon after helping create the PAC, Julie Parrish instated Mike Pihl—whom she praised for coming from a “civic-minded” family—as president of Timber Unity. Pihl, a husky-voiced, barrel-chested logger with a straw-colored beard, lives in Vernonia, a small timber town tucked in the mountains around the Nehalem River. He wears a uniform of red suspenders branded MIKE PIHL LOGGING, work boots, and a stained hickory shirt ripped at the sleeves. Since the late 2000s, he’s been featured on the History Channel reality TV show Ax Men. Pihl told me he didn’t think he’d be president if it weren’t for his time on the show. Loren Hutnick, an original organizer who said he was pushed out after Parrish came on, agreed. “Mike was brought in more as a figurehead,” he said.

Parrish’s management—or what Hutnick called hijacking—of Timber Unity was seen by some as an attempt to mainstream the organization while also fulfilling her political agenda. (In an email, Parrish said she is an “everyday citizen” and that she is “not now, nor considering, running for any kind of public office.”) Under her watch, the group formed paying membership levels and started selling decals, stickers, and reusable shopping bags. Hutnick saw Parrish’s involvement as a takeover by the very corporate entities that Timber Unity was founded to fight. “Timber Unity was supposed to be, was designed to be, for the working people and be ran by loggers,” he said. “Not a corporation.”

With new leadership in control, Timber Unity held what was likely its largest rally in Salem on February 6, 2020. A new version of cap and trade, which included amendments to appease Republican opposition to the earlier bill, was coming up for a vote in the legislature. The rally was 2019 all over again, but bigger. Timber Unity claimed that 10,000 people and over 1,000 trucks arrived. (At least one witness account puts the number at 2,000 people.) Johnson, the Democrat turned independent now running for governor, received an award. A logging truck displayed outside the Capitol draped in a blue tarp read, “Plant more trees and less government.”

At the February 6 rally, Kim Thatcher, one of the Republicans who walked out to stymie the first cap-and-trade bill, announced her candidacy for secretary of state. In 2020, she paid more than $360,000 to PIP Communications, the consulting firm Parrish owns with her husband. Timber Unity’s PAC then contributed $52,526.74 to Thatcher’s campaign. Jim Pasero, a Republican consultant, said Timber Unity’s contribution to a campaign Parrish helped with is “really up on the ethical edge of things.” (In an email, Parrish said there was no conflict of interest and that her role with Timber Unity was as “a support volunteer to a new organization that was trying to find its path in Oregon politics.”) In this respect, Timber Unity had transformed in a very short period from a genuinely populist movement to an astroturfed arm of the Republican Party and, by extension, the timber industry: Miller, the Stimson Lumber CEO who gave the Timber Unity PAC its first $5,000, is also a huge state GOP donor.

The event again attracted right-wing figures: Jo Rae Perkins, a QAnon promoter who is running this year for U.S. Senate, a seat for which she previously ran multiple times but didn’t win; an anti-vaxxer group called Moms for Medical Freedom. The comments in the private #TimberUnity Facebook group prior to the rally were vitriolic. People spoke about murdering Governor Brown. One user said, “Someone should shave her ass and teach her to walk backwards.” The conservation nonprofit Oregon Wild commissioned a report published that March that highlighted more alt-right ties: One of Timber Unity’s board members had photobombed a Proud Boy, and the group received an award at a dinner where the keynote speaker was Candace Owens, a vocal Trump supporter who has made sympathetic remarks about Hitler. Ultimately, the Republicans in the legislature—this time, those in the House too—again walked out, killing the cap-and-trade bill for a second year in a row. The tactic is a favorite of Oregon Republicans, who have continued to stage walkouts that upend the democratic process.

At the heart of Timber Unity is a decades-old fight against the environmental regulation that might impinge on rural working-class jobs. Rachel Carroll Rivas, the interim deputy director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, likened Timber Unity’s messaging to the 1980s and 1990s “wise use” movement, which advocated for expanded private property rights and less federal regulation on public lands. The alliance between corporate and labor voices against environmentalists dates more or less to that era. In the infamous battle over the spotted owl, which was declared a threatened species in 1990, workers and employers found common cause in a way that dissolved “the class divide that had … significantly shaped labor relations in the timber industry” earlier in the century, said Steve Beda, a history professor at the University of Oregon. The inter-class accord may have something to do with the nature of the work; some of the Timber Unity members, for example, are independent contractors or truckers who own their rigs. “Whether an independent contractor logger is an employer or employee is hard to nail down,” Beda explained. And that fuzziness, he said, “facilitates a new alliance between worker and employer.” 

This porous confluence of rural, small business, corporate, and conservative interests makes the movement difficult to define. Originally fueled by right-wing grassroots populism, it now also invokes broader conservative arguments about land use rights and government regulations. It has attracted alt-right figures, but its leadership has attempted to distance the group from them. The SPLC has labeled Timber Unity an anti-government group, but Carroll Rivas said Timber Unity is “a little more willing to play inside the rules” than other such groups. “They’re good at how they package what they’re doing,” she said. “I would almost call it nefarious or coded.”

All of this has created internal rifts over what exactly Timber Unity should stand for. Leavy alleges the PAC was created without his knowledge, and he eventually resigned from his role on the board. “A former politician should never be on a grassroots board,” he said about Parrish. By all appearances, Parrish puppeteered Timber Unity into an arm of the Republican Party. “This is a nice front for the GOP,” said Spencer Sunshine, who researched Timber Unity’s alt-right ties for Oregon Wild. “A nice Trojan horse.”

Throughout its existence, Timber Unity has enjoyed little public challenge from the Democratic Party. This could be, in part, because the party may not take Timber Unity seriously. State Senator Jeff Golden, a Democrat who represents a rural region in southern Oregon, called the group a “clever creation” for tapping into long-held timber resentments against liberal elites but did not think it posed a significant threat. Still, he acknowledged the success of bullying tactics. The GOP “have voters in their districts who say, ‘You owe it to us to shut down governments when this happens, and we want to recall you when it doesn’t,’” he said. “Think about that as a sign of where we’re at.” 

Without challenge from its opponents, though, Timber Unity has branched out beyond timber—and Oregon—and into other issues, such as wildfire relief. Recent efforts have included moving hay to feed livestock displaced by fires, actions that helped it further gain the trust of communities and advance an image of its members as do-gooders.

In hyperbolizing the rural-urban divide and demonizing environmentalists, the movement has capitalized on long-standing resentments about environmental regulation. Its initial momentum came on the heels of the 2018 yellow vest protests in France, which swept the country after President Emmanuel Macron announced an increase in fuel taxes. What started out as peaceful protests turned into, at times, violence and vandalism. The yellow vests came to embody not just frustration with working-class wages but anti-establishment sentiment in general. The ongoing farmer protests in the Netherlands also erupted over proposed emission cuts; farmers have blocked roads with tractors and driven their tractors to the parliament building, tactics similar to those used by Timber Unity.

While its continued association with alt-right figures and its naïve infighting might have weakened the group’s legitimacy in the view of some, Timber Unity nevertheless represents a slick, more media-savvy brand of rural activism that’s intent not only on grassroots organizing but on scoring political wins. Alive to the power of P.R. and canny about its messaging, the group is unnervingly well positioned to exploit the overlap between labor and corporate interests. 

I met Mike Pihl, the Ax Men cast member and Timber Unity president, and Parrish in November 2020, a week after the general election. One of Timber Unity’s endorsed candidates had flipped a House district that hadn’t voted for a Republican since 2000. Democrats held onto their supermajority, but several contested seats were flipped on both sides, revealing, perhaps, the success of messaging about the urban-rural divide; several districts on the coast flipped Republican, while the House district that includes the progressive city of Bend flipped Democrat. (About a month later, Representative Mike Nearman, whom Timber Unity had endorsed, would open the door for far-right rioters to storm the State Capitol building. He was expelled from the Oregon House in June 2021.)

Pihl lives in an unassuming cabinlike structure at the end of a long drive with a concrete porch and an awning. Outside, rubber boots hang from a hook and a wooden sign reads, “Family.” Another sign reads, “Bigfoot doesn’t believe in you either.” He owns 63 acres on a low hill, where he’s planted 20,000 Douglas fir trees that he thins for entertainment. He also has a coop; he planned to slaughter his own Thanksgiving turkey.

Setting up the interview hadn’t been easy. I left voicemails at the Timber Unity number. I passed messages through employers. One board member was either at work or without service or going to bed every time I called. People said they’d call me back and didn’t. Finally, I got hold of Pihl, who said he had to run my request up the ladder. After we hung up, I immediately received a call from Parrish. Given the grassroots nature of the movement and the exaggerated P.R. feel of the rallies, I figured board members would be more than willing to speak with me. Later, I got the sense that they were being evasive on Parrish’s behalf, though she told me the board is simply “off-put” by some national reporters.

Parrish is a fast talker who has a long-winded way of answering questions. I often felt she was at once pandering to me and trying to school me. As we piled into Pihl’s mud-slicked Dodge Ram and toured one of his private job sites, she reiterated a talking point about how urbanites view the state’s natural resources as their “playground.” In turn, she said, they don’t want people like Pihl to have a job. Parrish, who lives in a suburban area, suggested that Timber Unity might someday work with schools on how to guide students toward jobs in agriculture, mechanics, and timber. She said her son, who is in his early twenties and is a helicopter mechanic, has “made a fortune” but had to “really fight” to get into the field. She dismissed the notion, often put forth by liberals, that tourism or green jobs could offer a decent alternative to what she called family-wage jobs.

When I asked about the Oregon Wild report that had dug up evidence about the group’s alt-right ties, Parrish spoke at length about job protection and membership diversity and called the report “ginned up.” “If you look at my record as a lawmaker,” she said, “I have voted for some gun safety things, I have officiated a gay wedding, I consider myself pro-choice. I am not in the kind of crazy camp of whatever.” Pihl chimed in to say that when Timber Unity’s alt-right ties started surfacing in the national media, he had to Google “racist” and “fascist” because he didn’t know these terms. Parrish similarly claimed ignorance. After Timber Unity was accused of being part of QAnon in 2019, she told me she had to look the group up because she’d never heard of it. (Later, a poster promoting Timber Unity’s February 6, 2020, rally included a photo of supporters holding a QAnon banner.) Sunshine, the researcher for the Oregon Wild report, didn’t buy claims that Timber Unity is inclusive. “Would a Muslim person want to be part of Timber Unity? I really don’t think so. Would an openly queer person want to be? I really don’t think so. My impression is those would not be acceptable things.”

Parrish recently told me she isn’t really involved in Timber Unity anymore, but so far this year the PAC has reimbursed Parrish for personal expenditures and paid her communications company for online and social media marketing. Although Pihl resigned as president six months ago—because, he said, “it was taking over my life”—the website of former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan says that Pihl, as president of Timber Unity, endorsed her as the Republican candidate for governor. (He told me he couldn’t remember whether his endorsement was before his resignation.) Sanchez, meanwhile, says Timber Unity’s endorsement committee is still working to figure out who it will endorse in the midterms.

Regardless of the group’s evolving leadership, Timber Unity’s well-packaged public relations and shrewd organizing could become a blueprint for other far-right groups looking to build political influence at the county level, particularly in blue states with rural populations that already tend strongly toward conservatism. In a short period, Timber Unity has had significant political gains, and its success sets an example for other, more openly extremist anti-government groups. But extremism is not the only reason the organization should worry the left. Timber Unity is a troubling sign both of liberals’ failure to make inroads with the rural working class and of Republicans’ remarkable ability to encourage and ultimately co-opt rural grassroots movements. If it seems unwise for those on the left to ignore Timber Unity, it seems even more unwise not to learn from it.