OPINION: Oregon counties should drop timber lawsuit
I was pleased to hear the recent decision by the Oregon Court of Appeals to overturn a $1.1 billion judgement against the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF).
The original lawsuit, brought by 15 Oregon counties (including Washington and Tillamook Counties), maintained that timber harvesting was not being maximized on state forest lands. Simply put, these counties wanted more timber to be harvested so they would receive more revenue.
The forest industry was very supportive of this lawsuit; indeed, they pushed the counties in that direction.
Background: These forests, once privately owned, were cut-over and burned-over in the 1920s, '30s and '40s (including the series of fires known as the Tillamook Burn). These lands went tax-delinquent and reverted to county ownership. The counties could not deal with these devastated lands, so deeded them to the Oregon Board of Forestry, to be managed in a trust-like relationship. ODF then began decades of work reforesting these lands, ultimately turning them back into productive forests.
Prior to the early 1980s, timber harvesting was limited primarily to second-growth timber growing on the fringes of these vast burned/logged-over areas. The first commercial thinning out in "The Burn" began in the early 1980s. Harvesting (as well as recreation) has steadily increased over the years as these successfully reforested lands matured.
Revenue from harvesting is distributed according to state statute: approximately two-thirds going to the county and one-third to ODF.
ODF's share pays for fire protection, timber sale preparation, reforestation, recreation, road maintenance: everything needed to manage the forest.
The county's share is also distributed by state statute: 10% going to county administration, 25% to the county school fund, and the remainder prorated to the taxing districts (mostly to schools). Hundreds of millions of dollars have been, and will continue to be, generated from the harvesting of timber from these forests.
As these forests matured, better guidance and principles were needed to move them into the future.
So began a lengthy process to create the "greatest permanent value" administrative rules and associated "guiding principles" in order to develop state forests management plans — in essence, the goal being to generate a broad array of social, economic and environmental benefits over time and across the landscape.
Dozens of public meetings, hearings and tours were conducted to discuss, gather input and develop these rules and plans (including resulting harvest levels). The counties were involved every step of the way, and were very supportive of ODF's efforts throughout this entire process.
It was shocking, then, to hear that both Washington and Tillamook county commissions had voted to join a lawsuit suing ODF for not cutting enough timber. In sharp contrast, the Clatsop County commission chose not to join this lawsuit.
Obviously, some commissioners were true to their word, and some were not.
I hope both the Washington County and Tillamook County commissions (whose makeup is different now) will put an end to participating any further in this unfortunate lawsuit.
Dave Johnson served as Forest Grove district forester for 17 years. Now retired, he lives in Gaston.
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