There are 29.7 million acres of forestland in Oregon, which cover half of the state’s land base. Most forestland is owned by the federal government, however, for the past 80 years the State of Oregon has managed 2.4 percent of Oregon’s forestland on behalf of 15 counties and their taxing districts, distributing most of the revenue from timber sales back to the counties to fund public services. The state keeps about a third of the revenue it generates to pay for the cost of managing and protecting these lands and supporting public access. While these lands make up a very small portion of Oregon’s total forestland, they are critical to the surrounding counties. In addition to the direct revenue, the work harvesting and processing wood from these forests also creates good, year-round employment for local loggers, truckers, road builders, and millworkers and increases the local tax base. The basis for this arrangement is a contract made decades ago between the state and these 15 counties.
Over the past two decades, however, the rural counties that depend on the revenue and the employment these forests generate have seen their interests gradually pushed aside as more and more of this forestland is reserved for other uses. The mounting challenges faced by most rural counties due to declining timber revenues are well-known. Things came to a head in 2016 when 14 counties and over 100 taxing districts sued the State of Oregon over changes in how these forests are managed. They argue the state has arbitrarily reduced timber harvests on these lands below acceptable and sustainable levels in order to favor the interests of other stakeholders, thereby breaking the contract with the counties. The trial started this week.
Back in 2016, the struggling rural counties needed help getting this lawsuit off the ground so Hampton Lumber was pleased to be able to donate funds to help cover some of their initial legal costs. As we noted then (Opinion: Forestry practices in Oregon are, and must be, rigorous, Oregonian), we supported the counties and the taxing districts because we agree that the state has mismanaged its resources to the detriment of rural forest-dependent communities and there needs to be some accountability as to how these assets have been managed. Working in rural areas, we hear the concerns and the frustration on a regular basis from our employees, local business owners, public service providers, and elected officials.
We have always stepped up to support our rural Oregon counties. Last year alone, Hampton Lumber donated over $1 million to these same communities for childhood hunger and food bank programs, local schools and colleges, STEM education, scholarships, after school clubs and robotics teams, youth sports, fire districts, and habitat restoration. We contributed another $25K in lumber for schools and community projects. We know the unmet needs of these communities because we see them every day and we have always done what we can to help.
While we are not a party to the lawsuit, we’re pleased the counties will finally get their day in court. We hope this trial ignites a much needed conversation about how these lands should be managed and for whom. Managing forests for timber does not mean abandoning sensitive habitat or water quality protections or prohibiting public access—there are strong federal and state laws in place that protect those values. What it does mean is that first and foremost, these forests should work to benefit the counties who entrusted the state to manage them on their behalf. Right now, these counties believe the state is knowingly and needlessly failing in its obligations to the detriment of rural public services and people.
The trial is expected to run for the next three weeks. We hope you will join us in following its progress.
CEO, Hampton Lumber