News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Timber lawsuit rejected by state Supreme Court

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

The Oregon Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from 13 counties in a long-running $1 billion lawsuit over timber revenue and what constitutes “the greatest permanent value” when it comes to forest management.

The denial apparently ends a six-year legal battle over logging practices on 700,000 acres and is a victory for the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and environmental groups. The decision leaves in place a lower court ruling saying that Oregon can manage forests for a range of values that include recreation, water quality and wildlife habitat — not just logging revenue.

“It’s the end of the road for what has been a false narrative for far too long … that it’s the public forestland’s obligation to provide the bulk of the revenues for local communities,” Ralph Bloemers, who represented fishing and conservation groups in the case, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The counties gave the 700,000 acres of forestland to the state decades ago. Oregon manages the land and funnels timber revenue to the counties.

But 13 counties took Oregon to court, alleging the state was not maximizing the economic potential of the forests. A Linn County jury found in the counties’ favor in 2019 and awarded more than $1 billion in damages, but an appeals court struck down the verdict earlier this year. 

The state’s Supreme Court upheld that ruling. Officials involved in the case termed it unlikely that the case will move forward to the U.s. Supreme Court. 

The class action included fire and library districts and other taxing districts as well as county general funds.

Commissioner Roger Nyquist of Linn County, which played a major role in the development of the lawsuit, called the high court’s decision “disappointing.”

“The underlying issue of forest practices on public lands is left unresolved,” Nyquist said in a statement.

“This is about more than just money,” Nyquist added at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting in Albany. “If the state does not change its direction in terms of forest management, we will likely see more wildfires. The forests produce flammable materials two to three times their rate of removal. That program will undoubtedly lead to more catastrophic wildfires.”

Nyquist said class members will now need to move the issue to the state Legislature, which will convene in February. 

“We must force continued public conversation about this issue,” Nyquist said.

Linn is one of several Oregon counties and special taxing districts that receive a cut of logging profits from forestland they gave to the state in the 1930s and 1940s. Oregon agreed to manage those lands, which were mostly burned and logged over at the time of donation, “so as to secure the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state.”

Oregon has sent millions of dollars to the counties over the years, bolstering local budgets. But the 13 counties participating in the suit said “greatest permanent value” meant managing forests for maximum timber revenue.

The Oregon Department of Justice, which represented the state government in the case, issued a written statement Friday calling the Supreme Court’s decision a “victory for Oregon’s environment and for sound forest management in general.”

“Our forests serve a range of environmental, recreational, and economic purposes,” the statement reads. “By allowing what we argued was the correct decision of the Court of Appeals to stand, we have a swifter resolution and finality after a 6-year dispute.”

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