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Timber suit draws plenty of company

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Timber lawsuit

The sun sets over property above Hoskins that is part of the state forest trust land in Benton County. If the class-action lawsuit over management of state timberlands is successful, Benton County could receive close to $30 million as its share of damages. 

It was a surprise last week when the Benton County Board of Commissioners, on a 2-1 vote, decided to remain in a lawsuit over management of some state timber lands.

But maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise. When the dust clears, and the final tallies are taken in Linn County Circuit Court, only about 10 of the 150 or so plaintiffs in the class-action suit will have chosen to drop out. The final count won't be known until the court receives documents from all the jurisdictions that intend to opt out.

At issue is a $1.4 billion lawsuit filed by Linn County on behalf of 15 Oregon counties, including Benton, and dozens of smaller taxing districts. It argues that the state of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Forestry have failed to maximize logging revenues from 650,000 acres of state forest trust lands scattered among the 15 counties. 

Although the lawsuit raises important issues about the management of state lands, at its heart it is a reasonably straightforward breach-of-contract case. The claim is that state managers failed in their duty to generate as much revenue as possible from the state forest lands, mainly logged-over or fire-damaged properties that were acquired by counties through tax foreclosures starting in the 1920s and then turned over to the state for management.

A 1939 law says these lands must be managed for "the greatest permanent value to the state." At the time, the assumption was that "greatest permanent value" meant maximizing timber harvests from the lands, and therefore maximizing revenue flowing to the counties from those harvests.

But over the years, the state broadened the definition of "greatest permanent value" so that it included other goals as well, such as clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and carbon storage. As those goals came on line, the money flowing to the counties started to erode, hence the claim that the state has breached its contract with the counties.

That idea of revenue "erosion" likely prompted Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot to vote to stay in the lawsuit. Augerot, the newest commissioner on the board, comes from an environmental background, so her vote was surprising — and she said it was a difficult decision for her.

But listen carefully to what she said on during the Jan. 24 deliberations: "I feel it is appropriate for counties to fire a shot across the bow of the state and say no more of this erosion."

When Linn County filed the lawsuit back in March of last year, it might have been tempting for Oregon's elected statewide officials (at the time, all Democrats) to write it off as the work of a bunch of cranky Republicans from one of the state's most reliably red counties. 

They might need to reassess that now that one of the state's most reliably Democratic counties has elected to remain in the lawsuit. Maybe it's not so much a shot across the bow as it is friendly fire, but there's a message there.

This lawsuit still is in the early stages. It's still in Linn County Circuit Court, and you can be sure any verdict in the case will be appealed.

But it's clear this suit is about more than timber management. It's also about the tattered relationships between the state of Oregon and many of its counties.

When the lawsuit was filed, Roger Nyquist, the chairman of the Linn County Commission, said the county was prepared to pursue the case by itself, even if every other plaintiff dropped out. Now it seems Linn County has plenty of company.

Originally published Jan. 26 in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.


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