Timber county sues over lack of forest management

by Ashley Bach

A planned lawsuit announced earlier this month by an Oregon timber county against the state for not harvesting enough timber on state lands is dominating the timber debate there. Regardless of whether the upcoming suit wins in court, it’s already been successful in changing the conversation. 

Linn County, on Interstate 5 and just south of Salem, said it plans to sue the state of Oregon over what it says is the state’s breach of contract over the trust lands the state bought in the counties back in the 1930s and ’40s. According to Linn County, the state promised to manage the forestland “for the greatest permanent value” and return the timber income back to the counties. 

The arrangement worked just fine until the late ’90s, when the harvests on the state trust land started to decline, and those harvests have shrunk even more in the last two decades. Now Linn County is suing the state, for itself and 14 other timber counties, to recoup $1.4 billion in lost timber revenue.

The planned lawsuit has received positive feedback from several Oregon newspapers, including the Albany Democrat-Herald (in Linn County), the Roseburg News-Reviewand the Eugene Register-Guard.

The Register-Guard:

Roger Nyquist, chairman of the Linn County Board of Commissioners, has felt for years that the state is shortchanging rural communities by failing to manage the trust lands in ways that would yield the greatest possible amount of timber revenues that could be obtained without violating state or federal environmental laws. The Board of Forestry tipped him toward action last year when it asked the Legislature for money from the general fund to supplement its budget. In Nyquist’s view, the board was asking the people of Oregon to cover a budget shortfall created by its own land management decisions.

In filing notice of an intent to file a class action lawsuit, Linn County is representing all counties and districts in which the trust lands are located. Any of those jurisdictions could opt out of the class, but few are likely to do so. Barring a settlement, the case will ultimately go before a jury. The jury would decide whether to award Linn County and other members of the class the $35.2 million revenues lost each year since 2000, plus interest, along with an annuity that would pay $35.2 million a year in perpetuity — $1.4 billion in total.

That’s a big number — big enough to get the state’s attention. The state will argue that the counties and other local jurisdictions can’t sue the government that created them. Failing that, it will claim that no contract exists. Failing that, it will dispute the $1.4 billion figure. But the state has lost some of these arguments before. The state had better ensure that its land management policies are on solid legal as well as environmental and political ground — or start looking for ways to cut its losses.

Even the Oregonian in Portland had measured praise for the county’s lawsuit:

But the strength of the signal to the state’s Department of Forestry, unable to comment Monday as the Department of Justice reviews Linn County’s notice to sue, is strong and clear: A deal’s a deal, as viewed from at least one county that declares it is fiscally and socially whipped by the consequences of state policy.

If Oregonians are serious about helping rural counties regain their economic footing, the Linn County action should be a first discussion point. Trees figure in. But finding the forest through them will be the harder part for regulators who take their first signal from lawmakers.

Of course, the announcement of the lawsuit is just the beginning. For one, only Linn County is technically part of the suit. The other 14 counties will have to decide whether they want to stay in. One of the counties, Marion (Linn’s neighbor to the north), has suggested it won’t join the suit.

Clatsop County – the biggest state trust timber county in Oregon by revenue – is put “into a difficult spot” by the lawsuit, according to an editorial in the Daily Astorian

In an interview last week, Clatsop County Commission Chairman Scott Lee suggested our county might do just as well with its forest lands managed by what’s called a TIMO (timber investment management organization). TIMOs have the freedom to manage a forest for as long a harvest cycle as one wants.

In the immediate future, however, our county commission must reckon with Linn County’s lawsuit. Speaking to the Albany Democrat-Herald, Chairman Lee said: “This is a tough one. My concern is that any lawsuits that could tie up my (county’s) revenue stream from the state forest are problematic. This could bring lawsuits from environmental groups, too.”

Craig Pope, Commissioner in Polk County (west of Salem), said he will likely support the suit, but the legal action will have a massive impact on the ongoing out-of-court lobbying effort to get the state to increase its timber harvest.

(Polk) said the notice and eventual filing of the suit has ended any negotiations between the state and the trust counties for what he thinks is the best and most sustainable outcome: a new management plan that creates revenue for counties from harvests, not the state’s treasury.

“We are done talking,” he said. “I want to know how this lawsuit is going to expedite a better management plan.”

[This post originally appeared at WFPA.org]