ALBANY, Ore. (CN) – Oregon failed to maximize revenue from logging state forests, and should pay $1 billion to 13 rural counties who deeded the land to the state in 1941, a state jury decided Wednesday.
In 1941, rural counties donated land they couldn’t afford to maintain to the state, under an agreement that directed Oregon to manage state forests for “greatest permanent value” and share logging revenues with the counties.
That phrase – “greatest permanent value” – meant more than just money, especially in the post-Depression era, when people depended on public land for hunting and fishing, according to Oregon Assistant Attorney General Christina Beatty-Walters. She said Oregon had always managed forests to benefit both humans and wildlife.
“The counties case is that we should have been clearcutting all of the state lands on a 50-year rotation,” Beatty-Walters said in closing arguments Tuesday. “That not doing that was a breach. But where is the evidence that the department was harvesting like that before? There isn’t any.”
But 14 of Oregon’s 36 counties sued in 2016, claiming the state’s 1998 forest management plan violated their contract with the state by explicitly prioritizing watershed protection, wildlife habitat and recreation.
John DiLorenzo, attorney for the counties, said the 1998 plan “changed ‘greatest’ to ‘some,’ ‘permanent’ to ‘until we decide to change it’ and ‘value’ to ‘whatever we decide.’”
Beatty-Walters pointed out that harvest had actually increased since then and that the counties have made more money than ever before from logging on state forests since the implementation of the 1998 plan.
But DiLorenzo said that didn’t matter.
“Sure they’ve gotten money,” DiLorenzo said. “But you know what? If somebody owes you x and they pay you y, even if y is a big number, it’s still not right.”
He told the jury the state had let its forests get “locked up” by letting forests grow old enough to attract endangered species – and the protective regulations that accompany them. DiLorenzo said the state should have managed its forests more like private logging companies who clearcut their land every 50 years. And he said that breached the counties’ contract with the state.
“State foresters created habitat on purpose, even though they are not legally obligated to do so,” DiLorenzo said in closing statements. “That took land out of production because they are doing all these extra things. They have changed the deal. They changed the rules.”
The 12-member jury agreed, deliberating for only five hours before finding 10 – 2 that the state “breached their contractual duty ‘to secure the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state,’ as the term was understood by the parties in 1941.
They awarded the counties $674 million in past damages, plus $391.8 million in future damages – a total of over $1 billion.
The state is expected to appeal. Beatty-Walters and her co-counsel, Scott Kaplan, said they couldn’t comment on the case.
But DiLorenzo suggested after the verdict was announced that the counties would be willing to explore an alternative agreement with the state – more logging, and the jobs that go with it, in exchange for a reduced award.
“The counties would probably be willing to work something out because to the counties, more employment in the counties is worth a lot more than money in their pockets,” DiLorenzo said.