$1.4 Billion Trial Over Oregon Forest Management Kicks Off

ALBANY, Ore. (CN) – Oregon should cough up $1.4 billion to rural counties who claim the state is not logging its forests aggressively enough, lawyers argued Friday in a trial over whether the state is sacrificing revenue to manage state forests for conservation and recreation goals.

Fourteen of Oregon’s 36 counties sued the state and its Department of Forestry in 2016, claiming it violated a Depression-era agreement that controls essential aspects of how the state manages its forests.

The deal came in the wake of a series of massive wildfires called the Tillamook Burn, which scalded an estimated 350,000 acres between 1933 and 1951. After that, private timber companies said they couldn’t afford to pay taxes to the counties where they were located, so they let the counties foreclose on their land instead. But then the counties were no longer collecting taxes from that land because they owned it, and couldn’t afford work to prevent future fires or to replant the forests. So they agreed to give the land to the state, in exchange for a portion of the land’s future timber revenue.

Oregon law says state forests should be managed “to achieve the greatest permanent value to the state.” At issue is whether, when the 1941 deal was made, “greatest permanent value” referred only to money.

John DiLorenzo Jr., attorney for Linn County, the lead county in the class action, told the jury Friday that the state managed the forests primarily to maximize timber revenue until 1998, when it added guidelines to protect watersheds and increase recreation and wildlife habitat. DiLorenzo said that update broke the state’s agreement with the counties, in part because urban Oregonians wanted a say in how their state lands were managed.

“Starting in 1998, the state failed to keep the deal as it was understood in 1941,” DiLorenzo said in opening arguments. “Almost 60 years later it decided, oh, times have changed. And the expectations of people who don’t live here have changed. So what if the state then kept the land but didn’t keep the deal?”

By failing to log its forests in the aggressive manner of private timber companies, DiLorenzo claimed the state had created habitat for endangered species that now prevent the forests from being logged according to 1941 expectations. He said years of lower revenues coupled with a future of reduced logging add up – to the tune of $1.4 billion.

“The problem with habitat for a private landowner is that if you grow it, they will come,” DiLorenzo said. “The state has done just that. By letting the forest grow old, they attracted endangered species and that effectively took them off the table for unrestricted harvest.”

But Scott Kaplan, attorney for the state, told the jury Oregon’s forests were never managed solely for financial gain.

“Value doesn’t mean only money,” Kaplan said. “In the 1940s – in the Depression era when this contract was born – they understood that there were things that were just as important as money. Things like hunting, fishing and clean water.”

The jury’s task will be to determine whether the state’s 1998 rule updating the definition of “greatest permanent value” conflicts with the original 1941 definition.

The 1998 rule lists six components of managing the forest for greatest permanent value. At the top of the list is “sustainable and predictable production of forest products that generate revenues for the state, counties and local taxing districts.”

After that come ecological goals, like productive soil, clean air and clean water; protection from floods and erosion; habitat for native wildlife and salmon; and recreation.

“This, they will tell you, is a breach of contract,” Kaplan said. “What they’re telling you is that these public lands are to provide value not to everyone in the state, but to only these 15 counties,” Kaplan said. “That they are essentially an ATM to these 15 counties.”

The trial continues Monday and will likely last more than two weeks.

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