Each time Toledo City Councilor Bill Dalbey drives along U.S. Highway 20—which winds through the tiny timber town he calls home and extends to Newport, Ore., 7 miles to the west—he's reminded of the hornet's nest he kicked over.
That stretch of highway leading into Toledo, as well as businesses along the town's Main Street, is scattered with more than a dozen Timber Unity signs, Dalbey says. But it's not the signs themselves that bother Dalbey. It's what, in his opinion, they symbolize: far-right extremism.
"It's a black eye for the city of Toledo to have 15 goddamn 4-by-8-foot signs in this town advertising an organization that has these associations," Dalbey said during a Jan. 27 Toledo City Council meeting. "I would think anybody venturing into our town would assume that this town is literally owned by Timber Unity."
A meeting of the Toledo City Council is not typically a matter of statewide interest. The logging town of about 3,500 people on the Yaquina River is perhaps best known for its wooden boat show each summer.
But last week's hearing drew testimony from all over Oregon.
That's because Dalbey, 70, turned it into a referendum on one of the fastest-growing activist movements in the state, and whether it enabled the same kind of anti-democratic mindset that resulted in a mob of Trump loyalists storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a failed insurrection. The conversation in the tiny Lincoln County town was a rare example of people on both sides of a festering argument sitting in a room together to talk. And while that dialogue nominally concerned the character of a local political movement, it highlighted the chasm that divides the country.
Dalbey looked at Timber Unity—a conservative protest group that regularly rallies at the Oregon Capitol in support of loggers and truckers—and saw the seeds of homegrown extremism. WW reported that its spokeswoman, Angelita Sanchez, attended the U.S. Capitol insurrection. She also livestreamed from the state Capitol in Salem on Dec. 21, when conservative protesters trespassed into the building.
Last month, Dalbey began circulating a letter calling Timber Unity "a magnet for fringe groups" like QAnon, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
That didn't go over well in Toledo, where the mayor once gave Timber Unity a key to the city, according to the group's founder, Jeff Leavy.
"I honestly think this has been a colossal waste of time," Toledo City Councilor Heather Jukich said toward the end of the two-hour meeting. "Frankly, I'm disappointed in Bill for getting so many people upset about this, and we all have to come here and get upset and get angry, and that's what's upsetting to me." (She later apologized for calling the forum a waste of time.)
Dalbey disagrees. He says the group, at the very least, tolerates racism on its Facebook page, and that it doesn't truly represent his hometown.
"Domestic terrorism is the greatest threat to our country right now, as confirmed by everybody at the federal level," Dalbey tells WW. "You got to take action in your local sphere of influence. And I looked around and I saw all this Timber Unity stuff and I researched it. I understood that they're associated with some really bad actors, and I had to object to it."
Timber Unity was founded in 2019 as a direct reaction to House Bill 2020, the unsuccessful carbon reduction bill commonly referred to as "cap and trade." The group, which says it's a nonpartisan grassroots organization representing working loggers and truckers in Oregon, created the populist groundswell behind the Republican walkouts that brought the Legislature to a halt in 2019 and 2020.
It also gives money to candidates: at least $78,000 since its inception, according to the Oregon Secretary of State website. The vast majority of Timber Unity's donations have gone to Republicans, including recent contributions to Clackamas County Commissioners Tootie Smith and Mark Shull, and a $45,000 contribution to the Oregon secretary of state candidacy of Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer).
Since 2020, research groups like the conservation nonprofit Oregon Wild have argued in the pages of WW and Mother Jones that Timber Unity fosters an environment of extremism, misogyny and white supremacy.
"Through their online presence and in-person events, Timber Unity attracts people with white nationalist and paramilitary views," says Lindsay Schubiner, program director at Western States Center, which tracks extremism in the Pacific Northwest.
Former state Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn), a lead organizer of Timber Unity, says the group "absolutely" condemns white supremacy and that it is a nonpartisan organization with no ties to the far right.
"We would love to have more Democratic lawmakers and county commissioners, particularly those in the urban core, who would be willing to get out of their bubbles to really understand who Timber Unity members are," Parrish tells WW. "Our members, our board and our families are diverse because natural resource workers come from all ethnicities and races.…I would never personally volunteer my time for a group who supported racism."
Several members of Timber Unity, including Sanchez and Leavy, showed up to testify during the Jan. 27 Toledo City Council meeting. Peggi Rush, a moderator of the group's Facebook page, which boasts 64,000 members, noted that the group receives 25 to 50 member requests a day: "We got to be doing something right," she says.
Toledo City Councilor Betty Kamikawa, a Democrat whom Timber Unity endorsed during her run for Lincoln County commissioner, suggested that any Facebook page with so many members is going to have a few bad apples posting inappropriate comments.
"Like any other organization, you can always get a turd in a punch bowl. You can't kick 'em all out. It's just the way it is," Kamikawa said during the meeting.
Others found it baffling that Dalbey would try to sever a logging town from a group that advocates for timber interests.
Logging and trucking are the town's economic lifeblood: Hundreds of people in Toledo work for the Georgia-Pacific mill and recycling plant, owned by Koch Industries, which contributed over $55,000 to the campaigns of 11 Oregon state senators who walked out of the Capitol in 2019.
"I got to shake my head here a little bit. I've had three citizens on this testimony now tonight call me a racist for the sign on the side of my building," said Charlie Cyphert during the council meeting. "This is a timber town."
Cyphert owns Timbers Restaurant & Lounge in Toledo—where legend holds that a tipsy Paul Newman once chainsawed the legs off a pool table while in town to film the movie Sometimes a Great Notion. Cyphert says he has two Timber Unity signs affixed to the building.
In an interview with WW, Cyphert says he purchased the restaurant in September 2020 and that the signs were already on the building. He and his wife decided to keep them up.
"Every logger, fisherman, road builder, rock hauler—everybody comes through this restaurant," Cyphert tells WW. "For God's sake, our name is Timbers Restaurant & Lounge. We have part of the name of Timber Unity in the name of our restaurant. We don't get [upset] when loggers come in with work boots on and drag mud and put scrapes in our floor. We're like, 'Hey, guys, you just got out of the woods, you must be cold. Here's your cup of coffee.' We're here for them."
If he was presented with solid evidence that Timber Unity was affiliated with white supremacy and extremism, Cyphert says, he would gladly take the signs down. But for now they'll remain. Cyphert says he's gotten "a flood of support" since the city council meeting and that more people in town have put up Timber Unity signs since then.
Dalbey doesn't regret starting the furor.
"I see my members of my community sort of being duped by this. They sort of drank the Kool-Aid that Timber Unity is good for them," Dalbey tells WW. "It's a microcosm of the entire country. It's the same phenomenon on a local level: the misdirection and the outright lies that people have been fed in order to make them think they're a part of a grassroots movement."