River groups intervene in Oregon timber lawsuit

May 12, 2016 — Portland, Ore. — Pacific Rivers and three partner organizations – Wild Salmon Center, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, and Northwest Guides and Anglers Association – have entered the fray in a lawsuit brought by Linn County against the State of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Forestry. The river groups have intervened on behalf of the state and asked the judge to dismiss the suit.

Linn County filed suit against the state of Oregon in January seeking $1.4 billion in payments due to lost timber revenue. Linn County claims the state is required to maximize industrial timber harvest on state forests – namely the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests. The county claims other values, such as conservation and recreation, are secondary. Since 1998, the state has been managing these forests in a way that attempts to balance timber revenue, conservation, and recreation.

River groups argue in their May 9 filing that the state has done nothing wrong and the judge should throw out the suit. State law and the history of the lands clearly support the balanced approach the state adopted in 1998. Oregon statutes require the lands to be managed for the “greatest permanent value of those lands to the state.” And the rules adopted in 1998 allow management for salmon and wildlife habitat protection, recreation interests, and clean water procurement, as well as timber production.

A state attorney general opinion in 2006 concluded the state does not have a contractual duty to elevate timber payments above other priorities when managing state forests. On these grounds, the river groups made a motion on May 9 to dismiss the case.

John Kober, executive director at Pacific Rivers, noted the politics behind the lawsuit. “It should come as no surprise that the timber industry is helping to pay for this lawsuit. This is a re-run of an old Oregon story: the timber industry using their influence to extract public resources from public land for private benefit,” Kober said.

Ralph Bloemers, staff attorney at Crag Law Center, is representing conservation and fishing groups in the case. He said: “There are huge gaps in Linn County’s complaint, which fails to even mention that for over 50 years state law has noted the importance of fisheries, wildlife, watershed protection, erosion control, and recreation when these public lands were acquired. There is no sound legal basis for Linn County to seek $1.4 billion in additional payments from the people of Oregon, and for the reason this reason these groups have moved to dismiss the case.”

The dispute in this lawsuit can be tied back to an Oregon Board of Forestry decision in 1998 to seek a balanced approach on a class of state forests that now total more than 700,000 acres. The 1998 rule grew from changing public expectations of how forests should be managed. First, federal law identified endangered species that needed protection. Second, recreational use of state forests was starting to boom, especially in the Tillamook State Forest, west of the Portland metro area. Oregon did not have a comprehensive plan to manage these forests according to these changing expectations. The state risked lawsuits without a detailed and science­-based guidance document.

Fortunately, Oregon law clearly allows state forests to accommodate multiple values. State law says these forests should be managed “to secure the greatest permanent value … to the state.” This law specifically identifies multiple uses, such as providing for fish and wildlife, protecting drinking water, protection against floods and erosion, and allowing recreation, as well as timber sales. No hierarchy of uses is mandated.

Through collaborative planning, the state responded to the new demands in the 1990s by developing detailed plans. The Board of Forestry sought high timber harvest levels while also protecting salmon streams, restoring lands damaged by earlier timber practices, managing recreation and protecting critical wildlife habitat. And the result was actually more timber harvested. In Linn County, the level of timber harvest doubled in the 15 years after 1998, compared to the previous 30 years. Rather than causing “economic devastation,” the state forests became a reliable economic engine.

In the current state forest plan, 55% of the landscape is devoted to clear cutting and roads, 18% is open to thinning and road construction, and 27% is dedicated to stream protection, protecting steep and rocky slopes, and habitat for endangered species.

Meanwhile, demand for forest recreation opportunities continues to rise in growing counties such as Washington and Clatsop.

CONTACT: John Kober, 503-228-3555

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