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Our View: Washington County should drop out of timber lawsuit

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It was a missed opportunity not to take this to a proper public hearing.

Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday decided to remain in a class action lawsuit aimed at wringing more than $1 billion from the State of Oregon for distribution to 15 counties with state-held forest lands.

And the did so without ever taking it to a public hearing.

We think those were decisions made in error.

The issue is complicated: Does the state cut enough timber in state-owned forest lands (see story, page A1)? Proceeds of the timber sales go to the 15 counties that have the forests, as well as governments — such as school districts, fire protection districts — within those counties.

But if the state maximizes the cutting of timber for profit, will that impact environmental and sporting interests in our forests?

At the Washington County Board of Commissioners, the vote was 2-to-2.

We suspect the opinions among Washington County voters would have run along similar lines. That's why it's a missed opportunity not to take this to a proper public hearing.

The lawsuit seeks to impose a definition of "greatest permanent value" on these state-held lands by measuring "value" by the amount of money raised through timber sales alone.

We think that makes little sense for Washington County. First, because Washington County residents have a different, communal understanding of the "value" of such lush forests on our back doorstep. That value includes fishing, hiking, camping and access for families and youth. Relatively inexpensive access, at that — a low- or middle-income family might not be able to get to Yosemite any time soon, but they can throw a tent in the car and hit Elk Creek by noon.

But even if those favoring the suit are correct (see the opinion column by County Chair Andy Duyck, this page), the State of Oregon doesn't have $1 billion-plus in loose change laying around. Should the law suit succeed, where would the money come from? Bonding, which requires public debt? Or would it would come from money now spent on education and health care dollars distributed to communities in all 36 Oregon counties. Put another way, would the lawsuit mandate robbing Peter's county to pay Paul's county?

Third, if the suit should win, it would be appealed. Endlessly. Washington County and the other 14 named in the suit wouldn't see a dime for years. If the current Board of Commissioners thinks this is a good way to align the coming year's budget, think again.

Fourth, a policy to maximize timber production doubtless would run afoul of rules aimed at protecting endangered species. Does anyone think an appellate court would back a suit that would allow Oregon to skirt federally mandated environmental protection rules? Not likely.

See why a public hearing would have been a good idea?

We acknowledge the real pain inflicted on timber-dependent counties that have had to pay the price for decreased logging on all types of lands. Current forest practices attempt to balance cutting timber with preserving species and recreation. Is the balance perfect? Probably not. But better than a drastic increase in the first to the detriment of the other two.

Gifford Pinchot, forester and first director of the United States Forest Service, famously said, "Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."

We maintain that "greatest good" and "greatest permanent value" are one and the same, and are defined by a balance between profitable logging, recreation and protection of nature. The Linn County suit would unbalance the well-balanced plan we now enjoy.