According to a recent survey of field staff from nine state agencies, key personnel administering Oregon’s natural resources have encountered death threats, attack dogs, and firearms.
Two Department of State Lands employees tasked with protecting wetland habitats on the Oregon Coast escaped a harrowing site visit last year. The director of the agency Vicki Walker stated that the employees engaged in a cordial conversation with a Lincoln County property owner before informing him that he was in violation of a state environmental law.
Walker said –
“The gentleman just completely changed his attitude and threatened to murder them both if they didn’t get off his property.”
“In a situation like that, you don’t wait around to have a conversation, you remove yourself.”
This incident prompted the first investigation of its kind into the safety of Oregon’s natural resource employees. Many of these employees traverse remote regions to collect scientific data, verify permits, uphold environmental laws, and enforce hunting and fishing regulations.
This year, Walker collaborated with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a survey of the experiences of field staff. The comments revealed a number of disturbing themes, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults.
Do you know that police believe a man attempted to kidnap a little child during a Milwaukie Fourth of July fireworks display? The Milwaukie Police Department responded to Milwaukie Bay Park on Southeast Mcloughlin Boulevard at 10:20 p.m. after receiving complaints that a man had attempted to take a child from his parent:
It illuminates how the public interacts with and feels about its governance, according to Walker. A third of the more than 600 state agency employees who responded to the survey reported having recently experienced a public interaction that made them fear for their safety.
One respondent said –
“I was attacked by [an] owner’s pet resulting in two months of treatments.”
Other state personnel reported receiving threats involving loaded firearms and large knives. According to one employee of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife who enforces hunting laws, “occasionally shots are fired near employees.” Another said: “I’ve had landowners threaten to shoot me by patting their side-arm clearly in a holster.”
Numerous women reported experiencing sexual harassment on a regular basis.
One wrote –
“The [property] owner told me he wanted to see me undress.”
Another said –
“I am often meeting with middle-aged men (usually more than one), some of whom carry firearms, in the middle of nowhere at some quarry, and don’t want to be told by a woman what to do or that what they’re doing is wrong.”
Some staff members were frightened by conflicts with individuals living in natural areas without shelter, and they associated threatening behavior with drug abuse and mental health crises. Others stated that their state uniforms and marked vehicles made them vulnerable to road rage.
Many of these individuals work in remote locations with limited or nonexistent cell service. In the survey, they expressed a desire for more appropriate technology, such as satellite phones, GPS monitoring, and body cameras. Others desire pepper spray.
In addition to hindering officials’ ability to perform their duties, antagonistic interactions lead to burnout and negatively impact their mental health, according to the survey’s executive summary.
Social media has reacted to the news of Oregon government workers receiving deadly threats –
Sad to say I don’t find this surprising at all. Pretty much everyone I know who works in archaeology or natural resources compliance for the feds or state has been threatened at some point while doing their job. https://t.co/IaxI3Nm38c
— Dr. Elissa Bullion (she/her) (@g_gnomad) July 5, 2023
“It shines a light on how the public interacts with its government and feels about its government.”https://t.co/5VUEZcqT01
— Oregon Tea Party 🇺🇲 (@OregonTeaParty) July 5, 2023
“Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek ‘believes that the results of the survey are deeply concerning & must be addressed with haste,’ according to an email from Kotek spokesperson Anca Matica.”
This is awful. I’m glad to see the commitment to protect state employees.https://t.co/oPNZSQsZS7
— Casey Kulla (@CaseyKulla) July 5, 2023
Pretty disturbing behavior documented by government workers. People shouldn’t face sexual harassment and murder threats because they are doing their jobs.
— Ryan Haas (@ryanjhaas) July 5, 2023
Since the two Department of State Lands employees received that death threat on the coast, their supervisor has instructed staff not to go into the field alone, and Walker stated that the agency provides more training on how to de-escalate verbal conflicts.
But she and other executive leaders want a statewide response that is more uniform. They are advocating for structured safety training across agencies, enhanced collaborations with law enforcement, and the creation of a real-time incident database.
An email from Kotek spokesperson Anca Matica stated that the governor of Oregon, Tina Kotek, “believes that the results of the survey are deeply concerning and must be addressed with haste.”
Matica stated that the governor’s office is collaborating with natural resource agencies on policy changes to assure staff safety. She added –
“We anticipate significant progress to be made in the coming months.”
What are your thoughts on the dangers faced by Oregon workers who manage natural resources? Please share your thoughts in the section below.