Court documents show the timber industry is footing the bill for Linn County’s $1.4 billion lawsuit over logging in Oregon state forests.
The county is suing the state on the grounds it has failed to maximize revenue from state-owned forestland.
The lawsuit claims the state is contractually required to allow more logging on state forestland to ensure funding for counties that deeded the land over to the state more than 70 years ago.
In a class action suit, Linn County is seeking $1.4 billion in damages for 15 counties and dozens of local taxing districts that the county argues should have gotten more revenue from timber harvest on more than 700,000 acres of state forestland.
Court filings show the Oregon Forest Industries Council, Hampton Tree Farm, Stimson Lumber Company and the Sustainable Forest Fund have paid nearly $100,000 to cover Linn County's legal fees in the case and that the group agreed to pay up to $125,000.
Several environmental groups including the Wild Salmon Center have intervened in the case and filed a motion for the court to dismiss it. They argue the state is required to balance timber harvest with other forest values such as fish and wildlife habitat, clean water and recreation.
Bob Van Dyk, a policy director for the Wild Salmon Center, said the fact that timber companies are paying the county's legal fees suggests they're using the county to push their own agenda.
"This latest disclosure shows this case is really about timber companies trying to force the state to clear-cut public forests to supply private timber mills," he said. "Basically, the timber companies decided they weren't getting their way so they're paying the bills for a county to try to force more harvest out on the forest."
John DiLorenzo, an attorney for Linn County on the case, said funds from the timber industry are "a drop in the bucket" compared to the county's overall legal costs.
In a class action suit, he said, it's normal for outside parties to help finance litigation. He said in this case the timber companies have an interest in the public services provided by the counties where they operate mills.
"The timber companies happen to have operations where the county governments are hardly able to function anymore," he said. "They don’t have any money. A lot of those mills are in areas that are suffering because they have no police protection, no sheriff's department, nothing. Our claim for damages, assuming we prevail, would basically give those local governments a lot more money so they could provide services to the communities where these timber companies have operations."
DiLorenzo said the lawsuit isn't asking the state to change its forest management policy to allow more logging. Rather, it's calling for the state to pay the counties and taxing districts to make up for a breach of contract, according to DiLorenzo.
The Linn County Board of Commissioners have argued timber revenue from state forest lands supports a wide array of public services including education and public safety.
In a statement earlier this year, the board said the state breached its contract with the counties in 1998 when it adopted a new rule that de-emphasized timber revenue in favor of other objectives such as salmon and wildlife habitat protection. That reduced the revenue counties get from timber harvest by $35 million a year, they said.
"This breach of contract has had devastating effects on local communities that have seen both poverty and unemployment rates skyrocket in the last two decades as a result of the current practices," they said.
The case had its first hearing in Oregon Circuit Court on Monday. The next court date is Aug. 18.