Linn County Commissioners Roger Nyquist, John Lindsey and Will Tucker plan to file a $1.4 billion breach of contract class action lawsuit today against the State of Oregon in Linn County Circuit Court.
The commissioners are seeking compensation for 15 Forest Trust Counties and some 150 other local taxing districts.
On Jan. 13 the commissioners, represented by John DiLorenzo of the Portland-based law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, notified Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Forestry of Linn County’s intent to file a lawsuit.
A 30-day notification is required by Oregon statute.
“The response to our notice of intent to file this lawsuit has been overwhelmingly positive in our community,” Nyquist said in a prepared statement. “The state’s contractual obligation is to manage our forests in a way that benefits both rural counties and the environment. They’re not doing that, and rural communities are paying the price. I believe that a jury will reach the same conclusion.”
According to the commissioners, for more than 70 years the state “was to adhere to a legal framework for the conveyance of forest lands from the county to the state. In exchange for the conveyances, the lands were to be managed and revenues returned to the counties, with the state taking a management fee.”
The counties then allocate those funds to county services such as law enforcement or to local districts such as the OSU Extension Service District — Linn County.
The commissioners contend that since 1998 the Oregon Department of Forestry has put more emphasis on uses other than timber harvesting — such as fish and wildlife habitat, trails, campgrounds and open spaces — which have resulted in a $35 million per year reduction in revenue to the counties.
When the state acquired the mostly cut-over timber lands, starting in the 1930s and 1940s, the management was to be focused on the “greatest permanent value.”
Linn County believes that means a sustainable timber harvest that generates income, while others, including environmental groups, believe that means including giving weight to the other public uses.
“This is a straightforward breach of contract case,” DiLorenzo said. “The state’s breach has strained county budgets and impacted public safety, education and other basic services local citizens need. They’re not getting the benefit of their bargain with the state.”
Other counties named in the lawsuit are Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington. Those counties can opt out of the lawsuit if they wish, once the lawsuit is certified as a class action by the court.
The $1.4 billion figure was calculated based on the loss of potential county revenues since 2001, plus projecting years into the future if the current reimbursement model is allowed to continue unchallenged.
There are about 654,000 acres of Forest Trust Lands in Oregon, including about 21,000 acres in the Mill City area in northeast Linn County.
There are about 8,000 acres in Benton County.
In February, the Oregon Department of Forestry released its annual report of management activities for 2015, which included distributing $54.9 million to county governments and taxing districts collected from timber sales.
Nearly 5,000 acres were replanted with about 1 million trees, and 50,000 persons took advantage of campgrounds on Oregon Department of Forestry lands.
“People interact with and prioritize forest values differently. Under Oregon law, we manage state forests to provide a sustainable variety of benefits over time for all Oregonians,” said Liz Dent, chief of the ODF’s State Forest Division. “I’m proud of the story that this report tells, highlighting both challenges and opportunities, and an array of accomplishments that we deliver daily.”
Other report highlights included:
30,846 hours contributed by State Forests Division staff to support wildfire operations.
258.9 million board feet of timber provided through management activities.
$181,864 generated in campground revenues via 47,393 campers visiting state forest-managed campgrounds.
2.4 miles of fish access restored in streams and rivers.
188 miles of trails maintained or restored.
54,915 visitors to the ODF Tillamook Forest Center.
Oregon has six state forests: the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests in northwest Oregon near Astoria and Tillamook; the Santiam State Forest west of Detroit Lake in Linn County; the Gilchrist and Sun Pass State Forests in south central Oregon; and the Elliott State Forest, owned by the Department of State Lands, and managed by ODF.
Shortly after the commissioners’ January lawsuit press conferences, members of the North Coast State Forest Coalition issued a press release opposing the litigation. Comprising the coalition are the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Wild Salmon Center, Oregon Council of Trout Unlimited, Oregon Chapter of Sierra Club, Native Fish Society, Pacific Rivers and Northwest Guides & Anglers Association.
Coalition coordinator Chris Smith, said “greatest permanent value” refers to benefits to all Oregonians, not just the general funds of the 15 counties named in the lawsuit.
“The Board of Forestry is engaged in a multiyear process to look at different ways to manage state forests across Oregon,” Smith said. “That process has been frustrating for both conservationists and counties, because frankly, the forests are asked to provide more than they are capable of. There’s not enough timber out there to cover all bases.”