Linn County takes state forestland fight to court
Lawsuit could seek $1.4 billion in damages for breach of contract in the Oregon Forest Trust Lands program.
SALEM — Linn County plans to seek more than $1.4 billion in damages in a lawsuit against the state for breach of contract in management of forestland in 15 counties.
Linn County special counsel delivered a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and State Forester Doug Decker Wednesday, Jan. 13, telling them of the county’s plan to file the suit after a mandatory 30-day waiting period.
The governor's office has not commented on the lawsuit.
Up to 150 local taxing districts that receive timber sales receipts from harvests from the Oregon Forest Trust Lands contract could be eligible to join the suit. That includes schools, libraries, public safety agencies and other districts.
Other counties that benefit from the trust are Benton, Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook, and Washington.
A judge would have to approve class-action status of the lawsuit.
“There have been general discussions and angst for years about the distribution formula and how counties have been deprived of revenue by state,” said Portland attorney John DiLorenzo, who represents Linn County in the suit. “It’s no surprise they’re not getting as much of a return from the arrangement as they should be.”
The 15 counties have contracted with the state since the 1930s to manage forestlands for the land’s “greatest permanent value.” Linn County and the state are at odds over the meaning of that term. The county claims that the term means greatest economic value allowable under state and federal regulations and that returns ought to match what a private land manager could glean off the land. In 1998, the state defined the term to mean economic, ecological, recreational and aesthetic returns and implemented a management plan based on that definition starting in 2000, DiLorenzo said.
Linn County estimates that the 150 local districts in the 15 counties have missed out on $35 million per year in revenue in the past 15 years from the state’s management of the forestland. That number is based on forest modeling, much of which was borrowed from the Department of Forestry, DiLorenzo said.
“All of those local districts are in need of funding especially in the area of public safety,” he said. “Lives would be vastly improved if these monies were distributed to these districts.”
DiLorenzo and Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist declined to specify whether the county first approached DiLorenzo’s law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, or whether the law firm approached the county to propose the class action suit.
DiLorenzo said the lawsuit was “one of those perfect storms when everything came together.” He said he had been watching how the state had been managing the forestland. Meanwhile, timber counties had expressed growing contention over the state’s performance.