Jury in Oregon sides with counties in timber revenue lawsuit

In this Monday, Nov. 18, 2019 photo, Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist, right, talks with attorney John McGrory during a break in a $1.4 billion class action lawsuit at court in Albany, Ore.  Jurors Wednesday sided with the counties and against the state.

ALBANY, Ore. — Jurors in Oregon on Wednesday found in favor of 14 counties in their $1 billion lawsuit against the state over revenue from logging on state lands.

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.

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

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

The case focused on three words — “greatest permanent value” — and what they meant when they were 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.”

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