A $1.4 billion lawsuit pitting Oregon timber counties against the state will no longer include Clatsop County.
The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday night to opt out of the class-action suit that included 15 counties throughout Oregon. The suit claims the state Department of Forestry has not maximized revenue from timber harvests on land the counties turned over to the state to manage.
Hundreds of people, both in person and in writing, have offered opinions to the county since it was included in the suit filed by Linn County last year. Out of the 19 people who spoke during the comment session Wednesday night, 11 voiced their support for opting out.
“The overwhelming message from public testimony has been in favor of balanced forest management and against the Linn County lawsuit,” Scott Lee, the board’s chairman, said.
Commissioners Sarah Nebeker and Kathleen Sullivan joined Lee in voting to opt out of the lawsuit. One of the most common issues both commissioners and opponents of the suit raised was that, should the state lose in court, county residents could be affected by higher state taxes.
The fear of higher taxes stems from how the state could pay the counties back for the lost timber revenue.
“There is no free money here, as far as I can see,” said Nebeker, who also expressed concerns about the future ramifications on state forestry policies. “I do not think this is a good or wise way to change such far-reaching rules and practices.”
Linn County, with financial aid from a number of private timber industry groups, filed the lawsuit against the state in March, claiming it had failed to meet an agreement to maximize timber profits. In October, a Linn County Circuit Court judge’s ruling gave the lawsuit class-action status, meaning 14 other counties — including Clatsop — and 130 taxing entities could participate.
Commissioner Lisa Clement, who voted against opting out along with Commissioner Lianne Thompson, said while she was concerned with the potential rise in state taxes as a result of a successful lawsuit, she saw the timber issue as a legal, not political, issue.
Clatsop County’s roughly 147,000 acres of forestland represented 23 percent of all land included in the suit. Sheriff Tom Bergin, Warrenton Fiber’s Martin Nygaard and people who work in the local timber industry were among those who urged commissioners to remain in the suit.
Both Nebeker and Sullivan said the lawsuit favors Linn County’s interests more than those of Clatsop County.
“(The lawsuit) assumes that Linn County and Clatsop County agree with the greatest permanent value rule,” said Sullivan, who earlier in the meeting was sworn in for her first term as a commissioner. “While not perfect, the forest management plan is working.”
Thompson said that while she “hated” the lawsuit itself, she wanted Clatsop County to have a say in how its forests are managed.
“What I’m interested in is how best to control the outcomes,” she said.
“Why would we join a lawsuit that demands maximum timber harvest over all other interests if we don’t support that position?” he said.
Should the counties win the lawsuit, Clatsop County might have received $262 million. The county budget, by comparison, is roughly $57.6 million.
Other taxing districts, such as Clatsop Community College, would receive some of the money should they decide to remain in the lawsuit.
County Manager Cameron Moore said it was unlikely the county would consider filing a separate lawsuit against the state.
Moore said it’s not entirely certain what the board’s decision will mean for the county or the lawsuit. “I don’t think anyone will know what the exact impact of Clatsop County’s decision will be for at least a year,” he said.
Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist said the decision is between Clatsop County commissioners and their constituents and will not hamper the lawsuit going forward.
“Clatsop County must be in a much better financial situation than the rest of us, which is a good thing,” Nyquist said. “I don’t know how they go to the voters now and ask for more money.”