Oregon Counties Lose Lawsuit Against State

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The Oregon Supreme Court has ended a six-year legal battle between the state and 13 western Oregon counties over logging practices. The state’s high court declined to hear the case.

The counties, along with 150 tax districts within them, brought a class action lawsuit against the state and the Oregon Department of Forestry in 2016. They claimed the state failed to maximize logging, and logging revenues, on about 700,000 acres of forestlands.

The counties donated those forestlands to the state during the 1930s and ’40s at a time when most were burned, logged or unproductive. In exchange, the state agreed to manage the forests “to secure the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state.” Part of that involves allowing logging and sending millions of dollars in logging revenues back to the counties that donated the land.

Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington counties filed the lawsuit. At issue was whether the law mandating that the state manage the forests to maintain the “greatest permanent value” constituted a contractual agreement to maximize timber revenues for the counties. The state has considered “greatest permanent value” to mean managing forests for values that also include recreation, wildlife conservation and water quality while limiting some logging.

The counties claim they’re owed more than $1 billion for past revenue losses as well as future losses, should the state continue limiting logging on those lands.

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A Linn County Circuit Court jury sided with the counties and awarded them $1.1 billion in damages in 2019. However, the state appealed, and earlier this year Judge Douglas Tookey of the Oregon Appeals Court struck down the jury’s decision.

The counties appealed Tookey’s decision to the Oregon Supreme Court in July, which ended the legal saga with its decision declining to hear the case.

In overturning the jury’s decision, Tookey wrote that the agreement to manage the forests for “the greatest permanent value” did not “clearly and unmistakably create a contractual obligation” and that it does not clearly require any maximization of timber revenues for the counties.