ALBANY, Ore. (AP) — A trial in a $1.4 billion breach-of-contract lawsuit brought against the state of Oregon by 150 counties and other taxing districts over the issue of forest management is scheduled to begin Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed nearly four years ago, claims the state has not managed forests for the most long-term, sustainable income as required in a decades-old contract, the Albany Democrat-Herald reported .
"Your Honor, the state still believes this case is about state statute, but it's not," said attorney John DiLorenzo of the Portland law firm Davis Wright Tremaine at a recent hearing in Linn County Circuit Court. "It has always been about a breach of contract, pure and simple."
Attorney Scott Kaplan of the Oregon Department of Justice has said repeatedly that the state has the right and obligation to amend management of the state's forests, especially when the environment and wildlife are at stake.
A trial is expected to last three weeks.
The breach-of-contract lawsuit has its origins in the Great Depression.
Thousands of acres of timberlands were harvested by privately owned companies. Many landowners determined it would be more cost-effective to let the lands go back to the counties for unpaid taxes rather than replanting millions of trees and waiting up to 60 years to harvest them.
Counties did not want the properties and could not afford to reforest them.
Working with the state, the counties turned the timberlands over to the Board of Forestry through the Forest Acquisition Act. The state agreed to replant timberlands and upon harvest, would share the income with the counties based on the forests' "greatest permanent value."
The lawsuit claims that means timber management that provides the most annual income on a sustainable basis over the long-term.
However, in a management plan that took effect in 2001, the Oregon Board of Forestry based a definition of "greatest permanent value" to include factors such as recreation, riparian zones, wildlife enhancement and water quality,
The 15 counties in which state forests cover more than 1,093 square miles (2830 sq. kilometers), known as the forest trust counties, have seen their annual share of revenues decrease by $35 million per year.
"This lawsuit is all about economic development and jobs," said David Yamamoto, a Tillamook County commissioner and chairman of the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties. "This deal, this contract, was made many years ago, in the '30s and '40s, but unfortunately production from our forest lands is not what it could be."
Timber jobs are vital to rural counties, Yamamoto said.
The state wage average is about $52,000 per year, but in Tillamook County, the average annual wage is only about $37,000 per year, he said. Tourism jobs are mostly seasonal and average about $23,000 annually, he said.
"We do sustainable forestry today, it's not it was a generation or two ago," Yamamoto said. "We take care of the environment."
Bob Van Dyk, policy director for the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, said the term "greatest permanent value" involves more than just timber income.
"We think 'greatest permanent value' for Oregon — the statutory direction for state forest lands — is best served by balanced management that provides a range of values for the present and future," Van Dyk said in written statement. "Those include clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, timber supply, revenue, hiking and camping and hunting, off-road vehicle use, and carbon storage."
Information from: Albany Democrat-Herald, http://www.dhonline.com