A contractual obligation exists between the state of Oregon and 15 counties who turned over 654,000 acres of forestland to the state more than 70 years ago. In the contract, the state agreed to manage these trust lands for the “greatest permanent value” to provide support to the counties for social services and infrastructure maintenance and growth.
Last week Linn County delivered notice to Governor Kate Brown and State Forester Doug Decker of its intention to file a class action lawsuit for breach of contract on behalf of over 150 beneficiaries of timber sales receipts off Oregon Forest Trust Lands. The lawsuit alleges the state has violated the rule that requires management of these trust lands’ for the “greatest permanent value” since 2001 when the state implemented a revised forest management plan. This management change halved the revenues that would have been available to the counties had the lands been managed to standards set by the Forest Practices Act. The lawsuit claims that as a result of these management changes, the Forest Trust Land counties have suffered damages of $1.4 billion that could have been utilized for rural schools and other public services.
The lawsuit aims to draw attention to the hardships inflicted on community services as a result of dwindling public timber harvests. Those counties most affected include Clatsop and Tillamook, with damages estimated at nearly $490 million and $363 million respectively. Our company and our employees in these counties have experienced these shortfalls first-hand.
This lawsuit was carefully deliberated and not entered into lightly by the county. The ultimate hope is that the action will prompt the Board of Forestry and the Department of Forestry to move forward with sustainable active management sooner rather than later.
While the move toward litigation is unfortunate, requests for more active management have gone unheeded for so long that I believe it is now the only path left to the counties. The state has failed to keep up its part of the contract and shows no sign of changing course. As such, Hampton supports the lawsuit. It is a call for the application of best available science and forestry and conservation practices to manage these lands as the working forests they were intended to be.
I believe there is a “win-win” solution to state forest management that protects the environmental values we all share while providing sustainable harvest levels that benefit our rural communities. For example, if harvest levels were increased from 50 percent to 80 percent of annual growth, the forest would add timber inventory each year while maintaining high environmental standards and services. These forests are the backyards of our communities. We rely on them for clean water, habitat for wildlife, and recreation. These values are important and should be part of a sustainable forest management plan. Unfortunately, forest policy discussions are too often dominated by heated rhetoric, misinformation, and zero-sum scenarios.
This lawsuit is not only a wake-up call for state managers, it is an appeal to all Oregonians to take a thoughtful look at how and why we manage our public forests. Working public forests are our responsibility and our privilege to utilize and conserve for current and future generations of Oregonians.
I hope this lawsuit draws much needed attention to the frustrations of rural Oregonians and the resulting discussions and a shared understanding of the facts and possibilities will enable sustainable and equitable forest management on Forest Trust Lands. It’s in the best interest of all Oregonians that we move toward collaborative action instead of the courtroom gavel.