Johnson: County turns its back on sound timber practices
I was shocked when I heard the Washington County commission had decided to join Linn County in a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) for not harvesting enough timber.
Was this the same commission that routinely thanked ODF for the millions of dollars returned to the county from ODF timber harvesting? That was supportive of ODF improving campgrounds, creating hiking, horseback and ATV trails? That asked ODF to undertake a complex land exchange in order to create the L.L. Stub Stewart State Park in the county? Obviously, it was not.
Background: These forests, once privately owned, were cut-over and burned-over in the 1920s, '30s and '40s (including the series of Tillamook Burns), went tax-delinquent, and reverted to county ownership. The counties could not deal with these devasted lands, so deeded them to the Oregon Board of Forestry, to be managed in a trust-like relationship. ODF foresters then began decades of work turning these lands (referred to as Board of Forestry or County Forest Trust Lands) back into productive forests.
Timber revenue is distributed according to 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 these lands. The county's share is also distributed by statute: 10% going to county administration, 25% to the county school fund, and the remainder distributed to the taxing districts (mostly to schools).
As these newly created 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 a new State Forests Management Plan. 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. The counties were involved every step of the way.
Washington County was supportive of ODF's efforts throughout this entire process. Could more timber be cut? Certainly. But should these public forests look like a private industrial tree-farm? No. That's not what the public wanted.
Providing timber, while also providing different habitats for a range of species over time, is a primary goal. How much of each kind of habitat to have is the question. Current plans try to use the best science available to answer this question and determine harvest levels. Obviously, the science, as well as political opinions, continue to evolve.
So, why join the lawsuit? Did newly elected ultra-conservative commissioners, unfamiliar with history or the relationship with ODF, push this? Were longtime commissioners swayed by the timber industry's push for more harvesting? Did the smell of more money cause commissioners to turn into hypocrites?
When I confronted the commission back in 2017, they told me they'd joined the lawsuit because they could better support ODF by doing so. Really? I can think of better ways to show support.
Unfortunately, the Tillamook County commission also joined this lawsuit. Only the Clatsop County commission backed up their long-term support of ODF by not joining the lawsuit. If only Washington and Tillamook County commissioners were as steadfast and true to their word as Clatsop County's.
ODF will certainly appeal the court's recent decision. [Ed.: A Linn County circuit judge found in favor of the plaintiffs in November, ordering the state to pay out $1.06 billion.] What this means for future management of State Forests is unknown. One can only hope our forests will be managed based on sound goals and principles, developed through a collaborative and thoughtful public process, and not by short-sighted political pundits.
Dave Johnson was ODF's Forest Grove District forester for 17 years. He is retired and now lives in Gaston.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.