ALBANY, Ore. (CN) – The question of whether Oregon has too timidly clearcut its forests to satisfy a 1941 agreement to share logging revenues with rural counties was sent to a jury Tuesday night, after three weeks of testimony dealing with Depression-era forestry laws, industry and the environment.
Fourteen of Oregon’s 36 counties sued the state and its Department of Forestry in 2016, claiming it violated a 1941 agreement that controls essential aspects of how the state manages its forests. In the 1930s, private timber companies let the counties foreclose instead of paying their property taxes. The counties couldn’t maintain the land without taxes coming in, so they agreed to give the land to the state, in exchange for a portion of the land’s future timber revenue.
Scott Kaplan with the Oregon Department of Justice told the jury Tuesday that the situation was the result of “cut and run logging,” where private timber companies clearcut vast tracts of land and then abandoned them instead of spending the money to replant. Those lands were then vulnerable to devastating wildfires – a problem compounded by what was then 80 years of fire suppression since the Native American tribes of western Oregon ceded their territories to the U.S. government in the mid-1800s.
Oregon law says state forests should be managed “to achieve the greatest permanent value to the state.” The jury’s main task will be to determine whether, when the 1941 deal was made, “greatest permanent value” referred only to money.
John DiLorenzo, attorney for the counties, said the state performed under its contract for 57 years, until the implementation of a 1998 rule updating the definition of “greatest permanent value.” DiLorenzo argued that none of the plaintiff counties were asked to consent to the 1998 rule and the contract was never officially renegotiated.
The counties’ experts claimed the state could have increased its timber harvest by 40% if it had cut its trees every 50 years and protected fewer acres for spotted owls and riparian areas. Timber appraiser Richard Lamont testified that the state could have made an additional $1.4 billion if it had clearcut 90% of state forests, as is done on private timber lands, instead of the state’s practice of clear cutting a little more than half of state forest lands and thinning the rest.
But since the rule was changed, the counties have made more money than ever before – $860 million from the logging of Oregon’s 600,000 acres of state forests since 2004, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Christina Beatty-Walters.
“You would think from what the plaintiffs have argued that revenues and harvest have gone off a cliff,” Beatty-Walters said. “It’s has been just the opposite.”
According to Beatty-Walters, the law means the greatest permanent value to the whole state, not just the counties that filed the lawsuit. She told the jury Tuesday that the word “value” refers to more than just money.
She pointed to the state law governing acquisition of lands by the state’s Board of Forestry, which allows Oregon to acquire land that is “valuable for the production of forest crops, watershed protection and development, erosion control, grazing, recreation of forestry administration purposes.”
DiLorenzo disagreed, telling the jury that lawmakers in 1941 saw state forests as farms whose main purpose was the production of a crop: trees to build the residences needed to house the state’s growing population.
“People then did not want to waste water because they wanted it to run industry or irrigate fields before it got to the ocean,” DiLorenzo said Tuesday. “Conservation meant don’t waste. It meant keep things sustainable to make sure there’s always these resources to use for prosperity. That means money. That means monetary worth. That doesn’t mean beauty.”
The counties asked the judge for a directed verdict – where the judge would tell the jury that Oregon law clearly supports the counties’ claim that “greatest permanent value” means the state is obligated to maximize revenue. Linn County Circuit Court Judge Thomas A. McHill declined to order a directed verdict, saying there was evidence on both sides of the issue.
And so the jury will begin its deliberations on Wednesday morning, weighing questions that graze those at issue in many current debates: Who should benefit from public lands? And by whose definitions do we determine their value?
For his part, DiLorenzo worried that state forests “will become filled with endangered species and they will be economically worthless. They will be pretty to look at. But they will be worthless.”