Washington County commissioners, on a tie vote Tuesday night (Jan. 24), opted to stay in a lawsuit led by Linn County that seeks to recover more than $1 billion from the state in past losses and future proceeds from timber sales on state forests.
Washington County is the most populous of 15 represented by the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties. With $12.5 million in the year ending in mid-2015, the county was the third largest recipient of state timber sales.
The lawsuit argues that the counties and about 130 other local governments within those counties are owed more money from about 700,000 acres of forest lands the state acquired from them after widespread foreclosures triggered by the Great Depression 80 years ago.
Jan. 25 is the deadline for governments to opt out of the class-action suit. If they take no action, they remain participants in the suit pending in Linn County Circuit Court.
Commissioners Dick Schouten and Greg Malinowski supported the action, but Chairman Andy Duyck and Commissioner Bob Terry did not. The opt-out required three votes to pass.
Commissioner Roy Rogers did not take part. The accounting firm he is a partner in does auditing for Linn County, and Rogers said he heeded advice from the Washington County counsel to recuse himself.
Just five people were allowed to speak during a 10-minute period set aside for public comment — it was not a formal hearing — of at least 14 who signed up. Others filed requests after the meeting started.
"This stuff is messy," said Barrett Brown of North Plains, who supported the opt-out. "But I think the commissioners are strong enough to sort the noise from the sincere."
Chris Smith, who spoke for conservation groups that have banded together as the North Coast State Forest Coalition, said commissioners in Clatsop and Tillamook counties — the largest recipients of state timber proceeds — did allow for public hearings. (Clatsop County opted out; Tillamook County stayed in.)
"This outcome is not a good one that reflects Washington County values," Smith said afterward. "Comments were made tonight that this lawsuit does not affect forest management — but I think it does. Most disappointing was the lack of procedure and public input."
Tyler Alexander, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation, said the lawsuit merely alleges that the state has breached a contract with the counties to maintain income from timber sales.
"Remaining in this class action will ensure your ability to affect your interests," he said during the comment period.
Schouten argued that according to its advocates, the lawsuit seeks to rely on a 1941 interpretation of "greatest permanent value" of the lands even though it was only in 1998 that the Board of Forestry actually defined it — and carried out that goal in subsequent forest management plans.
"It's a really strange and poor legal view," Schouten said.
"It means if the counties are successful, there will be nothing to stop them to make a push, given the huge damages, for an increased cut in timber. This clear-cutting does not represent the fundamental interests of this county."
Schouten said the current county board backed a more diverse approach in 2013, when it endorsed a plan for high-value conservation areas within state forests for environmental protection.
But Terry said it would not be in the counties' interest to push timber production to levels that would be unsustainable in the long run.
"There is nothing in this lawsuit that says they have to go in there and clear-cut everything," Terry said. "It's in conservation's interest that these trees are grown and cut at a certain point in time and age.
"What we are saying is that we want to be at the table to help (the lawsuit) go in the right direction."
Malinowski said that while timber production should be part of state forest management, it should not be accelerated so that remaining trees are of similar ages.
While Duyck made no public comments Tuesday, he did make his views known against an opt-out during an interview with Pamplin Media Group last fall.
Part of the Tillamook State Forest is in Washington County.
Washington County is home to Stimson Lumber and Hampton Associates, the principal buyers of timber from state forests. The companies funded preliminary legal and other research that led to the filing of the lawsuit in 2015.
"It seems this lawsuit was put together for the timber industry," said Jennifer MacDonald of Cedar Mill, one of the few who got to speak Tuesday. "I do not think we need to tip the balance (of forest management) toward logging."