Tillamook County has about two months to decide if it wants to opt out of a $1.4 billion class-action suit, against the Oregon Department of Forestry, claiming that mismanagement of Oregon Forest Trust Lands has cost 15 counties $35 million a year since 1998.
By Ann Powers
But so far, officials are saying the county is in.
“There’s no reason why you would pull out,” said Tillamook County Commissioner Tim Josi, who heads up the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties. “It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Attorney John DiLorenzo, of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP of Portland, filed the lawsuit in Linn County Circuit Court earlier this year. The suit alleges breach of contract on behalf of counties that receive money based on annual timber harvests of 654,000 acres Forest Trust Lands statewide. About half of that acreage lies within Tillamook County, Josi added.
DiLorenzo said a notice of the legal action was mailed on Nov. 23 to the counties and roughly 150 harvest-revenue beneficiaries – such as law enforcement agencies, school districts, fire departments, libraries and more. Besides Linn and Tillamook, the other counties include Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk and Washington.
“They have 60 days to opt out,” DiLorenzo said. “If they take no action to do so, they will be included as plaintiffs. If they opt out, they forego the money.”
The legal action stems from issues dating back to the 1930s and the definition of Greatest Permanent Value (GPV).
In 1939, under Gov. Charles Sprague and the Legislature’s State Forest Acquisition Act, the state began acquiring the mostly cutover timberlands. The land had become a financial burden to the counties during the Great Depression because of delinquent property tax payments, foreclosures and in the wake of massive fires.
In exchange, the lands were to be managed for their GPV and portions of revenues generated by timber sales distributed to the counties. At the time, the counties and special districts interpreted that to mean the property be managed for the largest sustainable timber.
However, since then the state has expanded the GPV’s definition to include other factors such as wildlife protection, watershed enhancement and recreation. In 1998, an administrative rule changed forest management policy so timber-revenue generation was less of a priority, and the Department of Forestry reduced annual timber harvests without the consent of the beneficiaries.
“They took the emphasis off of timber harvest and created equal value with environmental and social concerns,” said Josi. “Which eliminated additional harvest proceeds because these forests are mature.”
According to lawsuit, the 15 Forest Trust Land counties have received about $35 million less per year since the 1998 change, and that constitutes a breach of the original contract, according to DiLorenzo.
Bob Van Dyk has a different take on the matter. He is the Wild Salmon Center’s Oregon and California policy director and part of the North Coast State Forest Coalition.
“State law says these forests should be managed to secure the greatest permanent value to the state,” Van Dyk said. “This law specifically identifies multiple uses, such as providing for fish and wildlife, protecting drinking water, protection against floods and erosion and allowing recreation, as well as timber sales. No hierarchy of uses is mandated.”
He added that the state responded to the new demands in the 1990s by developing detailed, and balanced, conservation plans.
“The Board of Forestry sought high harvest levels while also protecting salmon streams, restoring lands damaged by earlier timber practices, managing recreation and protecting critical wildlife habitat,” he said. “The result was a dramatic increase in harvest levels. Rather than causing economic devastation, the state forests became a reliable economic engine.”
But Josi said harvest levels are higher than they’ve ever been because the trees in question have matured to 70-plus years old.
“And now is the time to start benefiting from that… before the trees get too old,” he explained. “Especially for these rural communities that have been really hurt all these years.”
He also said scientific research, such as the Trask Paired Watershed Study, states the environment is not in danger because of the current logging industry.
“If I really thought what I was advocating for was destroying the environment, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “The environmentalists work on fear. They do this by selling fear. They’re no better than the NRA. They sell fear so that people buy dues and so they keep paying their wages.”
Van Dyk said the environmental interest he represents don’t qualify under Josi’s environmental marketing analysis.
“We’re not a member organization,” he noted. “So, we don’t have members to scare.”
However, the North Coast State Forest Coalition, which Van Dyk represents, is made up of core member organizations including the Wild Salmon Center, Oregon Chapter Sierra Club, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Oregon Council Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers, Native Fish Society and Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.
Van Dyk added the Coalition doesn’t oppose timber harvesting, but would like to see measures put in place that are above the minimum requirements imposed on private lands.
“We are going to be requesting that all of the taxing districts opt out (of the class-action suit),” he said.
DiLorenzo said he doesn’t see that happening.
“Some environmental groups are urging (plaintiffs) to opt out to make a statement,” he said. “That would be a useless gesture because this case is not going to change laws. If you opt out, you just forego the money. I anticipate almost everyone will stay in.”
DiLorenzo added he anticipates the case to go to trial in the latter part if 2017, or early 2018.