Clatsop County commissioners face a tough, potentially divisive meeting Wednesday when they are scheduled to decide whether to stay in or exit a $1.4 billion class-action timber-management lawsuit against the state.
A state judge gave the lawsuit, initiated by Linn County, class-action status in September, automatically adding 14 counties, including Clatsop, and 130 other taxing entities to the case. Each has until Jan. 25 to decide whether to opt out.
Paid for by timber industry groups and private companies, the lawsuit contends the counties turned over ownership of more than 640,000 acres of forestland to the state decades ago with an expectation the state would maximize timber revenues.
The suit contends that in the late 1990s the state changed forest-management practices by placing greater emphasis on environmental, conservation and recreational values.
As a result, the lawsuit asserts, the state breached its contract with the counties because there has been insufficient logging that has collectively cost the counties $1.4 billion in past and future damages.
At the heart of the case is wording within the state’s timber-management rules to provide the “greatest permanent value” in its practices, and how those rules — in place for decades — should be interpreted. The state’s attorneys say timber interests funding the lawsuit want the rules changed to emphasize timber harvest over other values.
The county’s decision will have lasting impacts. Monetary damages could be a boon to regional budgets.
But for a variety of reasons, we believe the best course for the county and other entities is to opt out.
Clatsop County currently has 147,000 acres of state forestland. That is about 23 percent of the acreage in the lawsuit. Harvesting in our county generates about $15 million a year, disbursed regionally. State statistics for Clatsop County show annual harvesting between 1990 and 1998 averaged 32.8 million board feet. After the state’s rules changed in the late 1990s, it increased to an average of 74.9 million board feet between 1999 and 2014. At the same time, timber payments nearly doubled — from an average of $8 million to an average of $15.2 million. Those same trends hold true for the state as a whole.
It’s important to note that the period in which harvesting and payments increased included the Great Recession when the housing boom went bust. So clearly the state’s forest-management practices haven’t hurt the region, although the plaintiffs assert the returns should have been much greater.
Commissioners should consider that while a potential $262 million regional payday could be at stake by opting out, much of the suit is pegged on future damages, and there’s no certainty an award will be anywhere near that level. And 15 percent of any award will go to the private attorneys handling the case for Linn County, not to the taxpayers.
The lawsuit is also likely to be tied up in court for an extended period, especially with potential appeals. It conceivably could disrupt the current revenue stream from the state.
Importantly, if the counties win, it would likely give taxpayers the burden of footing at least a portion of the state’s bill for financial damages, which will diminish any windfall the taxing entities expect to receive.
And while many say it’s important to have a seat at the table, Linn County, with little comparatively at stake, is the primary plaintiff, not Clatsop. But our county is one of the biggest dogs in the fight. Opting out doesn’t preclude our county from filing a lawsuit on its own at some future point.
In 2015, the county adopted an initiative called Vision 2030 Together, a plan designed to guide public policy decision-making into 2030. The plan contains these points: “Our natural environment is a key contributor to our quality of life. … Our forestlands are sustainably managed, with portions permanently protected for their inherent natural value.”
State forests are a public asset, and while a breech of contract and financial damages are the base of the case, it’s public policy that would change through any outcome that could increase harvesting and allow private interests to run the show. That could result in less accountability and less attention to environmental and recreational values.
The place to change that policy — or to make it more clear — is in the Legislature, not the courts and not at the expense of the taxpayers. The county and other taxing entities should steer clear of the case.