ALBANY — Linn County’s decision to sue the Oregon Department of Forestry for breach of contract based on reduced timber harvest payments “is a really polarizing act between certain counties and timber companies to maximize revenues and logging production,” said Bob Van Dyk, Oregon & California Policy Director with the Wild Salmon Center.
“It was a bit of a surprise, but also not a surprise,” Van Dyk said of the county’s Jan. 13 announcement. “There has been tension over state forest lands management for some time.”
Van Dyk said the class-action lawsuit, which names 15 counties, has damaged years of collaborative efforts to develop a long-term, sustainable program of timber harvesting along with respecting other core value uses including recreation, riparian zones, wildlife diversity and salmonid restoration efforts.
At issue in the legal action are 654,000 acres of Forest Trust Lands in Oregon, including 21,000 acres in Linn County, mostly in the Mill City area, with a small segment east of Lebanon.
There are about 8,000 acres in the northwest corner of Benton County.
In addition to Linn and Benton counties, other counties named in the potential lawsuit are Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington.
Van Dyk and Oakley Brooks, the Wild Salmon Center communications manager, met this week with the Democrat-Herald editorial board to offer an alternative viewpoint concerning the lawsuit and state forest management issues.
Van Dyk has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Washington and taught at Pacific University for 20 years, while also being involved with salmon enhancement efforts.
He has attended Oregon Department of Forestry meetings for about 15 years.
Van Dyk said although timber harvesting and distribution of income to the counties is important, it was never intended to overwhelm all of the other uses for the state lands that go into the term “greatest permanent value” for all residents of Oregon.
Van Dyk said the big picture is that most of the State Forest lands were obtained in the 1930s and 1940s and came after private companies cut timber, burned slash and then forfeited the properties to individual counties.
Since it was the Great Depression and because the lands had so little value and were not generating income, the properties were actually a financial burden to the counties.
The State Legislature, through a series of statutes, developed the program to take over the properties, repopulate their tree stands and then distribute a portion of timber sales back to the counties in return.
But Van Dyke said no formal contract was ever developed and there also were implied alternative values such as recreational opportunities.
Van Dyk added that the state took on the reforestation and rehabilitation of the lands at great cost, expecting no return for decades while the young trees grew to maturation.
“The taxpayers of Oregon picked up the tab to rehabilitate the properties and the counties eventually repaid the state, but without interest and with no factors for inflation,” Van Dyk said.
Van Dyke said the state did reduce harvests from 1990 through 1998, but that was due in large part to issues with endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl.
But since 1998, annual timber harvests have actually increased, he said.
According to Van Dyk, from 1990-1998, timber harvest on State Forest lands in Linn County averaged 3.74 million board feet, generating about $1.02 million per year.
From 1999-2014, the average was 11.86 million board feet harvested with income to the county of $3.18 million.
In 1987, Linn County received $861,491 from the state and a little more than $1 million in 1988. Benton received about $231,000 in 1987 and more than $800,000 in 1988.
“We need to find a good, middle-of-the-road model,” Van Dyk said of timber harvest versus other land uses. “We need to find a sustainable, balanced vision.”
Van Dyk believes the county lawsuit will put the brakes on collaborative efforts to find that balance. He said the state has operated by harvesting at a level about 70 percent of private industry, while also meeting other needs.
“We believe the state has done that pretty successfully,” he said. “But we also believe that since 2001, the state has seemed to drift toward weakened standards.”
Linn County’s lawsuit contends that rural counties have been “devastated” by the actions of the Oregon Department of Forestry, but Van Dyk contends that even if the state increased harvest locally by 2 or 3 million board feet per year, it would create fewer than 20 family wage jobs and $1 million more income for the county.
He said the 20 jobs, while important, would be only a minimal addition to the 42,000 total employment in Linn County. And, he said, adding $1 million to the county’s $150 million budget would not be significant.
When asked about the county’s contention that the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that the Public Employees Retirement System has a contract with its retirees that can’t be broken, Van Dyk said no written contract has ever existed between the counties and the state.
Instead, the relationship has been defined by a series of state statutes.
Addressing contentions by others that the Oregon Department of Forestry will soon be broke, Van Dyk said the department does not receive money from the General Fund.
“In five years, the department’s reserve funds will be depleted,” Van Dyk said. “Maybe it’s time the state contributes to help stabilize the budget.”
According to its annual report, the Wild Salmon Center’s goals are to identify salmon stronghold bases throughout the North Pacific (including projects in Russia, Alaska and Japan); support effective conservation actions and to provide resources and support for local communities.
Van Dyk said the center is funded by donations from private citizens and companies, foundations and government grants.