ALBANY, Ore. (AP) — A trial that could shape how Oregon harvests its forest trust lands is underway, with 14 counties and dozens of smaller taxing districts saying they want $1.4 billion because the state has failed to manage them for the “greatest permanent value” as required.
The trial began Thursday in Linn County Circuit Court and is expected to last three weeks, the Albany Democrat-Herald reported .
The breach-of-contract lawsuit has its origins in the Great Depression, when thousands of acres of timberlands were harvested by privately owned companies. The landowners abandoned the lands to the county after cutting the trees, figuring it wasn’t worth it to replant and then wait 40 to 60 years to harvest again.
But the counties didn’t want the properties, either, and couldn’t afford to reforest them. Working with the state, the counties turned the timberlands over to the Board of Forestry, with the understanding that the state would replant and share the income with the counties upon harvesting, managing for the “greatest permanent value.”
The counties sued nearly four years ago, claiming that the state breached that contract when it enacted new rules since 2001, when it adopted a plan that emphasizing the protection of wildlife, clean water and recreation. They say their share of revenues from the state’s six state forests, totaling more than 1,000 square miles, has fallen by $35 million per year.
“This lawsuit is all about economic development and jobs,” said David Yamamoto, a Tillamook County commissioner and chair of the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties. “This deal, this contract, was made many years ago, in the ’30s and ’40s, but unfortunately production from our forestlands is not what it could be.”
During opening statements before a 14-person jury Friday, state’s attorney Scott Kaplan said the contract between the state and counties has always included consideration of values other than economics, such as clean air, clear water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat and erosion control. He said the plaintiffs want to see the lands managed like an “industrial tree farm from the Cascades to the Pacific.”
He said the term “greatest permanent value” refers to the value for the entire state, not just the forest trust counties.
“State forest lands are not an ATM for the counties,” Kaplan said.
According to Kaplan, the counties have actually seen their annual incomes from state timber harvest increase since 1998, totaling $86 million in 2019. He said that last year, some 67,000 loads of logs came off state lands. Laid end-to-end, that train of logs would reach from Albany to Salt Lake City, Utah, Kaplan said.
State forest payments to counties were about $10 million in 1987 and $28 million in 1998, Kaplan said.
Most of the forest lands in Oregon — about 30% — are owned by the federal government, he said, while the state owns less than 3%.
In his opening statement, lawyer John DiLorenzo, representing the counties, said the case isn’t about changing the way the state manages the forests, but about the state’s broken promise to the counties.
“This case is based on common sense and a sense of fairness,” he said. “For the deal to be amended, it has to be agreed upon by both parties.”
The first witness called by the counties, Paul Levesque, a historian of the timber trust lands, testified Friday that production and sale of the timber was understood to be paramount when the deal was made.
“It was always clearly a business enterprise,” he said.
However the jury decides, the case is likely to be appealed.
Information from: Albany Democrat-Herald, http://www.dhonline.com