Oregon counties claim state mismanaged timberlands
The trial is underway in a class action lawsuit involving 14 Oregon counties that claim the state Department of Forestry failed to generate sufficient logging money from state-controlled land within the counties.
The 14 counties, including Columbia County, are claiming $1.4 billion in damages for the lost revenue and argue the state did not harvest as much timber as it should have on the land from which counties receive revenues.
"They certainly were not managing the lands to their potential," Columbia County Commissioner Margaret Magruder said Tuesday. "Timber management takes into consideration the environment, landscape, species ... If private industry can manage well, then the Oregon Department of Forestry needs to manage well."
Columbia County has received an average of more than $900,000 annually over the last five years, annual reports from the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties show.
Even $1 million is far below what two neighboring counties received. In 2018, taxing districts in Clatsop County received $32.3 million, while Tillamook County received $11.8 million.
Clatsop County is not part of the class action lawsuit because the county commissioners voted against joining.
In March 2016, Linn County filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Forestry, claiming $528.6 million for the difference in revenue of what was earned through logging and what would have been earned "if the forestlands were managed in accordance with best management practices required of private landowners," as well as pre-judgment interest of $25.6 million and future damages to counteract the lost revenue in perpetuity in the amount of $881 million.
Magruder's hope, she said, "is that we will be among those who prevail in the lawsuit and depending on what the decision is, that there will be additional funds coming to us to make for (those) many years."
"This money goes to schools, the county, the county general fund," Magruder said. "I certainly think that there are several areas that could benefit from it," she added, noting calls from community members regarding deteriorating roads and other costly issues.
The lawsuit was initially funded by timber groups and lumber companies including Stimson Lumber, which operates mills in Clatskanie and elsewhere.
In the initial filing, attorneys for Linn County explained that Forest Trust Land Counties had gained ownership of massive amounts of forestland through foreclosure following the Great Depression and forest fires in the 1930s and 1940s. With the foreclosures, the counties lost significant tax revenue, leading the counties and state to agree to have the state manage the forests for a set management fee and return the remaining revenues to the local governments.
But, the filing from attorney John DiLorenzo alleges, the forest management practices "failed to secure the greatest permanent value of the lands as that phrase was under-stood when the contract was made."
In 1998, the state adopted the Greatest Permanent Value rule, which went beyond monetary value and added in consideration for "a full range of social, economic, and environmental benefits to the people of Oregon." Under the GPV rule, the state has factored native fish and wildlife habitats, fertile soil, clean air and water, and recreation into logging decisions.
The 12-day jury trial started Oct. 24 and will conclude Nov. 15.
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