On Monday, Clatsop County received something it has been expecting for weeks: formal notice of a $1.4 billion class action lawsuit that includes 15 counties and dozens of local taxing districts.
By late January, the Board of Commissioners will need to decide whether or not to remain involved in a legal clash that could bring millions of dollars to the county — or could, as some fear, dangerously increase harvest on county forestland and hand over control of these lands to the private timber industry.
The lawsuit, filed by Linn County earlier this year and backed by the timber industry, alleges the state has failed to maximize revenue from the timber lands it manages on the counties’ behalf.
Decades ago, Oregon’s timber counties turned over ownership of their forestlands to the state. The understanding was that, in return, the state would maximize profits from timber harvests. However, a more recent forest management plan emphasized conservation measures and habitat improvements.
The Linn County lawsuit argues that, now, the state owes these timber-rich counties money. In Clatsop County’s case, there’s a possible $300 million at stake.
A seat at the table
There are two regular public meetings scheduled between now and the Jan. 25 deadline when county commissioners must decide if they want to opt out of the lawsuit, one on Dec. 14 and another on Jan. 11. Clatsop County Manager Cameron Moore says it is unlikely the board will make any decision at the Dec. 14 meeting.
No matter what they decide, someone is guaranteed to be unhappy, county officials predict.
Also, in or out, it is likely county staff will have to dedicate time and resources to record retrieval as the lawsuit progresses and lawyers lay out their arguments, Moore said.
And there are benefits to remaining involved.
“If we’re in the lawsuit, we are at the table,” Moore explained. Any settlement discussions with the state, any deals, any changes, Clatsop County would be present.
The county has an obligation to taxpayers to look closely at the lawsuit and examine potential impacts, both positive and negative, Moore said.
The Linn County lawsuit is essentially a contract disputeMoore said.
And, technically, county commissioners don’t have to do anything. The county is named in the lawsuit and will remain unless commissioners opt out.
Some people who have been coming to county commission meetings consistently since the lawsuit was filed worry about what the suit could become and what it might mean if the courts rule in the counties’ favor.
Court filings show the lawsuit is backed by and, in large part, paid for by the timber industry. The Oregon Forest Industries Council, Stimson Lumber Co., the Sustainable Forest Fund and Hampton Tree Farm have all contributed money to cover the counties’ legal fees. They created a litigation fund, described in court documents as a “special purpose entity that may receive donations from third parties.”
Former county commissioner Helen Westbrook and others who have spoken up at commission meetings wonder: If the court decides that the state is in the wrong, will the various timber groups backing the lawsuit gain more control over state forestland? And would such a judgment open up these public lands to increased timber harvest? And who really wins in that scenario? Not the forest, the animals, the fish or the people of Clatsop County, they say.
Westbrook, at a meeting in October, said the evidence of the timber industry’s involvement shows “what the suit is about and who stands to benefit the most.”
“Please think about how this suit will most certainly impact future management of our forests,” she urged.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 30 percent of Clatsop County’s total acreage is state or federal forestland. Compared to other counties listed in the lawsuit, Clatsop County is a big piece of pie, with thousands of acres of timber worth millions of dollars.
The county expects to receive a projected $3.5 million in general fund revenue from state forest trust land timber sales, according to this year’s budget. This is down from last year’s projections, but more than what the county received in recent years.
“I have serious concerns,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Scott Lee about the lawsuit. “Particularly the fact that it is completely funded by the timber industry.”
He hasn’t made up his mind yet. The more he looks into the lawsuit and the issues and topics around it, and the more he talks to people more knowledgeable about state forestlands than he is, the more options he sees.
“I’m still finding out options,” Lee said.
Whatever the board’s decision, the discussion of the county’s concerns and options will occur in an open, public meeting, Lee promised.
While “the outcome (of the lawsuit) certainly has the potential to change how the state manages state forestland … that’s really not part of the lawsuit,” Moore said.
At least not yet, environmental groups argue. Some, like the Wild Salmon Center, have filed motions in court to dismiss the case, arguing that the state must take into consideration other factors beyond timber sales and include values like the health of the forest, clean water, recreational options and habitat.
Questions of forest management — or mismanagement — should not be dismissed lightly, Moore agrees.
“You’ve got a unique asset in the state forest that you can never replace,” he said.
The other counties named in the lawsuit include Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington.