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Oregon counties win timber lawsuit against state

Fourteen counties in Oregon claim in a lawsuit that the state deprived them of revenue for decades by limiting logging in state forests.

Posted: Nov 20, 2019 12:12 PM
Updated: Nov 20, 2019 2:54 PM

By ANDREW SELSKY Associated Press

ALBANY, Ore. (AP) —

UPDATE: Jurors in Oregon have found in favor of 14 counties and their $1 billion lawsuit against the state over revenue from logging on state lands.

Leah Olson, who works with the Linn County court in Albany, confirmed the verdict delivered Wednesday was in favor of the counties. The counties had claimed breach of contract, saying the state did not harvest enough timber over two decades, depriving the counties of revenue.

There was no immediate reaction from the state, whose attorneys had said the counties wanted to allow clear-cutting of forests and don’t care about endangered species.

(Updated 11/20/19 at 2:50 p.m.)


INITIAL REPORT: Fourteen counties in Oregon claim in a lawsuit that the state deprived them of revenue for decades by limiting logging in state forests.

Attorneys for the state counter that the counties wanted to allow clear-cutting of forests and don’t care about endangered species.

The dispute has boiled over into the $1 billion lawsuit that is now in its fourth week of trial in Albany, where timber once brought jobs and prosperity.

It’s focused on three words — “greatest permanent value” — and what that meant when the phrase was written into law 80 years ago.

Lawyers for the counties say it meant maximizing revenue from logging. Attorneys for the state argue that it includes other factors such as recreation and habitat.

The law stemmed from a time decades ago when private lumber companies descended on Oregon and clear-cut forests. Instead of paying taxes, the companies left counties to deal with the land in a practice known as cut and run.

The counties didn’t have the resources to restore the land. So, during his 1939 inaugural address, Gov. Charles Sprague urged the Legislature to pass a bill allowing the state to designate the land as state forests, grow back the trees and manage the land “to secure the greatest permanent value” and share revenue with the counties.

The law enabled the state to adopt about 1,000 square miles — roughly the size of Rhode Island — from 15 counties that receive 64% of the logging revenues. One of the counties declined to join the lawsuit.

The counties claim the state breached the contact in 1998 when it adopted a rule defining greatest permanent value to mean healthy, productive and sustainable forest ecosystems that provide a social, economic and environmental benefits to the people of Oregon.

Attorneys for the counties made it clear they want the trees treated as a commodity to be exploited.

“Timber is like a crop of wheat, except for a longer growing season, isn’t that right?” John DiLorenzo, a Portland attorney hired by the plaintiffs, asked one witness at the trial.

He also noted that smaller timber harvests mean fewer jobs in logging, milling, transportation and other services.

Scott Kaplan, an attorney for the state, declared that the counties’ vision of greatest permanent value is “turning Oregon into a tree farm from the Cascades to the Pacific.”

The counties have actually seen revenue from timber harvests increase since 1998, totaling $86 million in 2019, he said.

Witnesses at the jury trial have included a history professor, retired foresters and others who have trooped into the Linn County courtroom.

The lawsuit was initiated by the Oregon Forest & Industries Council trade group and two companies that buy timber — Hampton Tree Farms and Stimson Lumber, the Oregonian newspaper reported, citing court documents.

Mills have been closing across the state for years. In the 1970s, annual Oregon timber harvests totaled more than 8 billion board feet and employed 80,000 workers at wages 30% above the statewide average, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.

Annual harvests are now under 4 billion board feet, with direct industry employment at about 30,000 and the average wage equal to the statewide average. The biggest driver behind the decline is logging on federal lands being down nearly 90%, according to the 2017 study. Around half of Oregon is federally owned land.

The 14 counties, all in western Oregon, are seeking $674 million they say they lost in revenue since 2001, and $392 million in future damages through 2069.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 387485

Reported Deaths: 5116
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah59768836
Washington41571393
Marion39592504
Clackamas32426376
Lane29856354
Jackson24672350
Deschutes23182185
Umatilla15087180
Linn14488178
Douglas13236286
Josephine10057240
Yamhill9665142
Klamath8979145
Polk813698
Benton605137
Malheur591586
Coos5573106
Columbia423855
Jefferson416865
Lincoln357252
Union336854
Crook330156
Wasco314846
Clatsop258335
Baker217531
Tillamook214345
Hood River211337
Morrow197025
Curry190136
Harney119332
Grant108314
Lake104016
Wallowa74713
Sherman1903
Gilliam1844
Wheeler1141
Unassigned00

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Reported Deaths: 74159
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles152548627128
San Diego4047084319
Riverside3849455306
San Bernardino3718825944
Orange3329505675
Sacramento1674002423
Kern1565171781
Fresno1558992246
Santa Clara1511691922
Alameda1246581504
San Joaquin1070001833
Ventura1036461188
Contra Costa1032921045
Stanislaus912991413
Tulare856141082
San Francisco56614669
San Mateo56058629
Monterey52340625
Solano47422356
Santa Barbara47035548
Merced44807664
Sonoma42912412
Placer41881468
Imperial38128769
Kings35038358
San Luis Obispo31294358
Madera26005311
Shasta25917440
Butte25295309
Santa Cruz22028222
Yolo21451257
Marin18342248
El Dorado18166161
Sutter14494181
Napa13372104
Yuba1070088
Tehama10230129
Humboldt10043117
Nevada9914103
Mendocino848894
Lassen792355
San Benito775977
Tuolumne767790
Lake6990110
Amador573766
Siskiyou470954
Glenn455136
Calaveras435685
Del Norte371242
Colusa323519
Inyo254345
Plumas19127
Mono18294
Mariposa156718
Trinity98817
Modoc7475
Unassigned2430
Sierra2170
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