Oregon counties say they're missing out on millions each year because the state doesn't log public forests like timber companies do on private land. And their lawsuit, set to begin Thursday in Linn County, gives 14 westside counties the chance to make their case against the state.
The counties are seeking $1.4 billion in damages for a lack of logging revenue from publicly owned forests.
Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington counties are all part of the case, as well as more than 100 special districts and other government entities that receive money from state forest income.
Linn County, with the initial financial backing of the timber industry, is leading the case against the state of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). The timber trade group Oregon Forest Industries Council, the Sustainable Forest Fund, Stimson Lumber Company and Hampton Tree Farm provided seed money to fund the case.
Notably, Clatsop County, which does rely on income from state forests, is not part of the case. Commissioners there voted against joining the class action lawsuit.
Why do the counties think the state owes them so much money?
It comes down to how the ODF has been managing state forests over the past couple decades. Under Oregon law, about two-thirds of the income on most state forestlands goes back to the counties where the forests are located. This money is very important to the counties to pay for basics like operating jails and putting sheriff deputies on the road.
Linn County says the Oregon Department of Forestry is required by law to maximize timber harvest — and that means logging state forests like private timber companies log their land. And because the state doesn’t, the counties are missing out on $35 million per year. That adds up to around $500 million since 2001. Then they’re asking for $800 million more in future damages.
Why do the counties make money off state lands in the first place?
This gets back to the history of these forests. Back during the Great Depression, landowners in western Oregon cut their timber and instead of paying taxes, they just permitted the counties to foreclose their land. In the Tillamook area, there were also a couple of major forest fires around the time — and much of the land that burned ended up going to the counties as well.
During the Depression, the counties didn’t really have the resources to make all this cut-over and burned-over land profitable again, so the Oregon Legislature passed a law allowing the property to be transferred and managed by the state. The law said the state would manage the forests to secure the “the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state” and then pass a chunk of the profits back to the counties. This phrase is what much of the case hinges on.
What changed to prompt the counties to sue?
Back in the late 1990s Oregon passed a set of agency rules that defined what “greatest permanent value” means. It’s not just about money anymore. The ideal of public land value now brings in things like the recreation value, the value of clean water, wildlife habitat and streams, which provide communities' drinking water.
The counties say this change to how state forests are managed violated the contract that was formed 80 years ago between them and the state.
Western Environmental Law Center lawyer Susan Jane Brown is not involved in the case, but deals with these kinds of issues around federal public lands.
“My guess is that we will see a number of different types of people take the stand and provide testimony around these particular issues. Is this just a contract or is it in fact broader than that?” she said. “Does the state have additional legal obligations to other Oregonians, not just to counties, as well as an obligation to the counties themselves? I don't think that there is an easy answer.”
Looking to the future, beyond this case, the questions are likely to get more complicated. In the face of climate change, the question of greatest value may shift further to include the benefits derived from using forests to sequestering carbon.
What’s going to unfold over the next few weeks with the trial?
The case been working through the legal system for about four years and is finally going to trial by jury in Linn County Circuit Court in Albany. The trial is currently scheduled to wrap up in mid-November.
No matter what the verdict of this trial, with potentially $1.4 billion at stake, appeals are likely.