Counties win one: State loses billion-dollar timber lawsuit, plans appeal

December 2019 Posted in News

By Mary Owen

After week-long deliberations, a jury sided with 14 counties – including Marion – in a $1.06 billion class action lawsuit against the state of Oregon.

With financial backing from the timber industry, Linn County led the case against the state of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Forestry. In addition to Marion, Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Polk, Tillamook and Washing counties joined Linn, as well as 151 special taxing districts.

If the jury decision stands, Marion County would receive $9.6 million in damages and $11.5 million in future damages predicted for the next 50 years. The funds would come out of state income taxes.

“The win should mean more sustainable logging, jobs, and economic vitality,” said Sam Brentano, Marion County commissioner. “The reality is the state robbed rural counties of revenues to pay for services and it needs to come back. That would be wonderful, and it would be fair.”

The November decision came on the heels of a four-week trial at the Linn County Court in Albany. The counties sued the state for breach of contract, claiming inadequate timber harvest over the last two decades had cost loss of jobs and revenue. State attorneys countered that the counties wanted to allow clear-cutting of state forests without caring about endangered species.

The case stems from the Forest Acquisition Act of 1941 passed that allowed the state to designate about 1,000 square miles of land from 15 counties as state forests, managing the land “to secure the greatest permanent value.” The counties were to receive the lion’s share of logging revenues, which they claim has not happened.

The state’s failure to maximize timber harvest by logging state forests has cost counties an estimated $35 million per year, according to various reports.

“We’ve been watching this case closely,” said Kristina McNitt, president of the Oregon Forest & Industries Council. “What a fantastic win for the trust lands counties. Let’s hope it serves to re-establish the counties as partners with ODF in managing these valuable assets, going forward. Rural Oregon has been discounted and left behind for far
too long.

“The industry originally supported this lawsuit for good reason – as you know, the sector operates almost exclusively in the rural counties impacted by the state’s breach of contract,” she added. “It’s their employees and families who are living in communities with limited opportunities and underfunded public services.”

According to McNitt, except for some early seed money to develop the legal theory several years ago, her organization has had no direct involvement or standing as a class member, intervenor or any operational control.

The state will appeal and negotiations with the counties involved are likely to take place.

“I would like to thank the dedicated lawyers and staff at the Oregon Department of Justice who worked tirelessly to bring this case to verdict,” said Fred Boss, Oregon DOJ’s deputy attorney general. “While we are disappointed in (the) verdict, we believe there are strong arguments to be made on appeal, and we plan to appeal this decision.”

McNitt said, “A decision to respond to an inevitable appeal is Linn County’s to make, but I’d expect and support a strong effort in that arena.”

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