SALEM — A month ago the Linn County Board of Commissioners notified Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Forestry of a potential lawsuit seeking $1.4 billion due to decreasing timber harvest payments to 15 counties.
The 30-day notice of intent is required by law, but Board Chairman Roger Nyquist said Monday, the first day such a lawsuit could be filed, the county intends to wait until the current legislative session is completed in early March before proceeding.
“We’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt to take any action until the session is over,” he said. “In theory, they could solve this problem if they desire to do so while they are in session.”
On January 13, Nyquist was joined by fellow commissioners John Lindsey and Will Tucker at a press conference at the Capitol.
A second press conference was held later in the day in Portland.
At the crux of the potential class action lawsuit is the issue of state payments to counties where state forest lands are located.
There are about 654,000 acres of Forest Trust Lands in the state. Linn County is home to about 21,000 acres in the Mill City area.
There are about 8,000 acres in Benton County.
Other counties affected are Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington.
Litigation would also include 150 other beneficiaries of harvest revenue including law enforcement agencies and special districts, such as the OSU Extension Service District in Linn County.
The proposed litigation is based on the county’s belief that the state lands were accumulated in the 1930s and 1940s and were to be managed by the state “for the greatest permanent value.”
Linn County believes that means economic value.
But others believe the term must include recreation, riparian issues and aesthetics.
As the state’s economy continues to slog along, counties have been faced with continued pressures when trying to balance their budgets, Nyquist said.
The fact that the counties receive less income from the state forest lands only adds to the difficulty, he said.
Although Gov. Brown and the Oregon Department of Forestry declined comment about the potential lawsuit, the Department of Forestry did distribute information about how payments are determined.
It read in part:
“Oregon laws direct us to manage state forests to produce a sustainable flow of economic, social and environmental benefits. Generating these benefits is the central goal of both the state and adjacent communities, and producing county revenues and wood fiber are central components of this management approach.
“Harvest revenues are distributed according to a statutory formula whereby two-thirds of the dollars generated by the forests are sent back to counties and local taxing districts. The remaining one-third funds the department’s management of these public lands, including costs for compliance with the laws that govern forest management, and programs that produce public values beyond timber harvests.
“Conservation and recreation opportunities created by the management of these forests also benefit local communities. Clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, trails, campgrounds, education opportunities and open space — as well as the economic and recreation opportunities associated with these benefits — represent important values for all of us, and are often accompanied by their own legal mandates.”
It also stated that litigation would likely harm the consensus building efforts that help guide ODF programs.