With air horn blasts, thousands of big rigs and lots of camo hats, rural Oregon makes its voice heard

A rally and protest unfold in Salem on Thursday, Feb. 6. Timber Unity spent months organizing the latest display of objection to plans for environmental legislation seen as damaging to rural areas of Oregon. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau)

Just before 5 a.m. Thursday, U.S. Highway 26 in Washington County was nearly pitch black and lifeless except west of North Plains, where a string of lights broke the still emptiness. 

A growing convoy of big rigs – log trucks, dump trucks and others  – parked outside of a weigh station.

Their drivers congregated in groups in between the trucks. The drivers, mostly men, for the most part were dressed alike: work boots, jeans, baseball caps and camo or blaze orange reflective jackets.

The mood was light as the truckers talked shop and swapped information about who was working for which company. 

They were readying to make a run south to Salem, to speak up with truck horns and their own voices about issues they saw threatening their livelihoods. The prime source of their unhappiness was the revival of a legislative proposal to limit greenhouse gases in Oregon.

Suddenly the truckers snapped from relaxed to attentive. Fliers laying out the rules for the convoy they were about roll out in were passed out. They gathered around Jeff Leavy, a trucker from Columbia County and an organizer of Timber Unity. 

“I cannot tell you how proud I am to see you stand up,” Leavy shouted. “I don’t want to lose my job; I don’t want to lose my industry.”

“Let’s do it!” he concluded. 

Truckers climbed into their cabs and fired up their engines. With a blast of air horns, the convoy slid into early morning rush-hour traffic and headed toward Salem. Others were coming from the south and the east, converging at gathering locations to park and then politic.

The Oregon State Fairgrounds and Polk County Fairgrounds became big rig depots. Thousands of protestors bused to the Capitol for a rally. Other trucks kept going, heading for the heart of Salem.

In contrast, inside the Capitol, environment group Oregon Wild held a forest conservation event featuring The LORAX, the titular character of a Dr. Seuss book.

According to Todd Stoffel, a founding member of Timber Unity, 1,125 trucks joined the convoy. Traffic in downtown Salem ground to halt as big rigs lapped the Capitol. Their horns were so so loud that a committee chair conducting a hearing inside asked people testifying to speak up. 

‘The easy highway’

A reporter from the Oregon Capital Bureau rode along with one driver on the run to Salem from North Plains.

5:28 a.m. The CB radios in the truckers’ cabs crackle chatter. 

“I have a hammer.”

“There’s some car that’s kinda messing with us.”

“Everybody wear your seat belt.”

One trucker played the song “Convoy.” 

As the convoy approaches Portland’s suburban edges, the trucks blow their horns for people waving on an overpass. 

6:05 a.m. After crossing the Fremont Bridge in Portland, the convoy hits Portland’s early morning traffic as it heads on to Interstate 5 going south.

“Can’t wait to get back to the easy highway,” one trucker said over the CB radio.

6:34 a.m. After making a loop through the highways in Portland, the convoy picks up more trucks as it made its way toward Salem on Interstate 5. One trucker took to the CB radio to warn of an “Evel Knievel”- trucker talk for a police officer on a motorcycle. 

6:54 a.m. The convoy unexpectedly pulls into a rest stop south of Wilsonville creating quite a traffic jam. The driver in a lead car needed a restroom break. After leaving the rest stop, the convoy was joined by truckers from east Oregon. 

7:41 a.m. “Alright, we’re No. 1, according to that Prius driver,” a trucker says with gleeful sarcasm over the radio. 

7:53 a.m. The convoy reaches Salem and is joined by another group of trucks from southern Oregon. There’s talk on the radio that a car is trying to disrupt the convoy and a reminder to be on their best behavior so they don’t get lumped in with “militia types.” A passenger in a dump truck unfurls a Gadsden flag and attaches it to the roof. 

8:23 a.m. The convoy turns on to Salem Parkway and splits up. Some head to the state fairgrounds in northeast Salem while others go west out of Salem to the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall.

A woman holds an Oregon-shaped sign with the American flag on it during a rally at the Capitol Thursday. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

A crowd gathers

As trucks from across the state merged into a miles-long convoy and snaked its way to the state Capitol, hundreds of people arrived early to cheer the arrival of the trucks.  

Among them was Ron and Beth Simon, wearing matching jackets emblazoned with “#TimberUnity farmers” across the back and a similar patch over their hearts. 

The couple from Malin, Oregon, drove five hours to arrive Thursday morning to be part of the rally, representing Simon Brothers Trucking, and the family farm that produces hay and grain. Simon and his brothers Ed and Fred parked trucks out in front of the Capitol, one with a with a message for Gov. Kate Brown: “Can you hear us now, Kate?”

Approximately 1,500 truckers, farmers, loggers, diesel machinists, veterans and others showed up Thursday to express their displeasure with the revised plan by lawmakers to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“This bill is going to put small businesses like us out of business,” said Simon, 57. “We were hoping to work for another 10 years before retiring. If this passes, we’ll probably have to retire early.” 

Simon said he hasn’t seen recent amendments to the legislation that would phase in regulations geographically starting with the Portland metro area and exempt areas east of the Cascade Range. He still believes the plan would eventually encompass all of Oregon. 

By 9 a.m., Court Street in front of the Capitol was lined with people holding brightly colored signs, American flags, Gadsden flags and other insignia. 

They came from Coos Bay and Wheeler, Alsea and Albany, Ontario and Port Orford. They included men, women and children — singular demonstrators and families united around a common goal of making themselves and their plight as rural Oregonians heard. 

They sported shirts bearing the names of their companies and political messages. “Make America Great Again” hats were in full display, along with trucker hats, cowboy hats and hard hats. A group of men in III% gear milled about. 

As more trucks arrived, the brightly colored sea of denim, flannel, camouflage and reflective safety vests swelled around the Capitol steps. The crowd anxiously awaited speakers to take the microphone, and Cries of “God bless America” and “God bless Donald Trump” cut through the din and prompted echoing cheers from nearby demonstrators. 

Children shuffled through the crowd around their parents, many carrying Douglas Fir saplings handed out by Timber Unity. They stood along the side of the street, excitedly signaling for truck drivers to blast their horns. 

Dozens of organizations took the opportunity to set up booths on the Capitol mall to pitch their causes, asking participants to sign petitions, register to vote or learn about emerging political candidates. Joey Nations, a Republican running again for Congress in Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District, was among them. 

As speakers took to the podium, the crowd fell silent except for the blaring horns of trucks that continued to circle the Capitol. The audience listened intently and participated eagerly when prompted. 

“They want you to shut up and comply! Are you going to?” asked Shannon Poe, president of the American Mining Rights Association. 

Timber Unity leaders, lawmakers, candidates for office and industrial leaders all took to the microphone and commended the crowd for their participation and making their voices heard in front of Oregon’s elected officials. By around 2 p.m., much of the crowd had dispersed or gone inside the Capitol to speak with their legislators.

But not everyone was happy with the rally.

A graduate student from Portland State University, Kirsten Sarle, had set up an air quality monitor. The data Sarle collected revealed massive spikes in black carbon, or soot, pollution Thursday morning.

It was so bad that the Little Friends Montessori school — across the street from the Capitol — wouldn’t let their young charges go outside.

 Contact Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

 Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.