The owner of a giant Eastern Oregon ranch again brings his issues — and checkbook — to Salem.
By Emily Volpert
June 17, 2015
Scott Campbell has never been one to let the law hold him back when it comes to his massive Eastern Oregon ranch.
Campbell is best known as founder of Hannah the Pet Society, a pet-leasing company, and as the veterinarian who struck it big with Banfield Pet Hospitals, the chain of vet clinics that was bringing in $400 million a year when he sold it in 2007.
He also owns Silvies Valley Ranch, a 140,000-acre resort and working estate between Burns and John Day. Oregon land-use laws prohibited operating a resort at the site—so in 2011 Campbell got the Legislature and Gov. John Kitzhaber to change the law, just for him.
At the ranch, Campbell had blocked rivers and creeks with hundreds of dams to irrigate the ranch’s hayfields. He didn’t get the state’s permission to build them, and Kitzhaber’s aides believed Campbell’s dams halted migrating fish. Campbell later settled with the state, paying a small fine but getting to keep his dams.
Now, Campbell wants a new bill passed in Salem, and a legislator who’s received more than $26,000 in campaign contributions from Campbell is pushing the measure to make dams like Campbell’s legal.
“This whole thing is being written to bail this one wealthy individual out,” says Jon Pampush, executive director of the Western Invasive Plant Alliance. “It’s tailored specifically to make sure that he isn’t held liable for the 10 years of damage that he has already done.”
Campbell says that isn’t true. He tells WW he’s pushing the legislation because he believes the dams improve watersheds. He says his ranch, with its existing dams, won’t benefit from the measure.
“The whole purpose of the bill is to improve the environment,” Campbell says, “and to make it so people who have property can do that without dealing with the red tape that I have had to deal with.”
The dams would also help Eastern Oregon’s economy, he adds. “What’s wrong with that?”
The bill would allow a pilot program for “artificial beaver dams” like the ones at Silvies Valley Ranch in other locations. The bill has passed the House and is now in committee in the Senate.
The measure doesn’t require landowners constructing the dams to include fish passages—the state would have to kick in to pay for those if needed. Environmental groups say that’s a loophole that could harm threatened or endangered fish.
“Nothing in this bill says the dam ever has to be modified,” says Brian Posewitz, staff attorney for WaterWatch. “You can’t require the landowner to pay any costs for fish passage later on.”
The lawmaker pushing the legislation, Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), has helped Campbell before. It was Clem’s 2011 bill that exempted Silvies Valley Ranch from land-use laws. Kitzhaber, saying he opposed such special legislation to help a single individual, signed the bill anyway.
The 2011 bill helped create the political context for the current legislation. In 2010, Kitzhaber collected $20,000 in campaign contributions from Campbell, who often gives through one of his many companies. Campbell gave Kitzhaber another $46,500 after he signed the bill.
State records show Campbell has donated $26,091 to Clem’s campaigns since 2010. The donations include a $7,500 contribution in November 2014, the single biggest donation Clem has reported receiving.
Clem says the campaign contributions have nothing to do with his support of the artificial beaver dam bill. Instead, he says, the idea grew out of a Campbell-sponsored summit of Eastern Oregon business leaders at Silvies Valley Ranch in June 2014. Kitzhaber also attended, but only after Campbell signed the consent decree (“Another Kind of Green,” WW, March 4, 2015).
Campbell concurs the campaign contributions to Clem have played no role. He says he supports Clem because he appreciates the Democrat’s willingness to be bipartisan. “He crosses the aisle when most of them don’t,” Campbell says.
He says that the bill’s opponents have tried to kill the measure by tying it to him personally, and he wishes environmental groups would work with Clem to help pass the bill.
“It’s unfortunate,” Campbell says. “All they want to do is fight over it, and we are just trying to benefit the environment.”