Officials in Lane County and a dozen other counties in Oregon might feel like Christmas came early this year, but they’d be wise not to spend anything just yet from a $1.1 billion jury award they’ve won in a lawsuit over timber harvesting.
After an 18-day trial, jurors in Linn County took only a few hours to deliver a verdict in favor of the counties in the class-action lawsuit against the state of Oregon. The plaintiffs alleged Oregon had failed to live up to a World War II-era agreement to maximize timber harvests in state forests and share the revenues with local governments.
Lane County stands to gain about $73 million from the lawsuit. The remainder will go to 12 other counties and 151 local taxing districts that signed onto the suit.
The state is likely to appeal.
At issue is the Forest Acquisition Act of 1941, established to guide management of about 600,000 acres of land taken on by the state following a spate of foreclosure and forest fires. Under the agreement, the state is required to manage forests for “the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state.”
For the past few decades, Oregon officials have interpreted the value of the forests to lie mostly in the clear air, clean water, natural habitat and recreational potential they provide. But plaintiffs in the case — with financial assistance from the timber industry — argued that the state’s interpretation had unfairly cut rural counties out of revenue they’d receive if more timber were released for harvest. The jury in a county that stood to benefit agreed.
Government leaders in Lane and elsewhere are already thinking about how they’ll spend their share of the money. There are plenty of needs and wants, including — as District 1 Commissioner Jay Bozievich points out — a mental health center, housing programs and a new courthouse. But officials would be wise not to rely on lawsuit funds for any of those projects until the appeals process is exhausted and the money is in the bank.
The Democratic-led Legislature, meanwhile, also should be frugal. There’s no guarantee a state appeal will succeed. At least the state revenue forecast for December for Oregon is up nearly $163 million since the September forecast. If that holds, lawmakers would be wise to restrain themselves from going on a spending spree and instead set aside some money to help pay the jury award.
State officials bear part of the blame for the predicament they’re in, as do leaders in many of the counties clamoring to see more timber harvesting.
As Oregon’s priorities shifted toward forest preservation, the state should have done more to help develop new industries and jobs in those counties. And some of those local officials should have made the hard but necessary choice to raise property tax rates to offset losses in timber revenue.
If there’s one lesson in all this, it’s that the depths of state code and agreements can contain surprises. Before the next one surfaces, officials would do well to search out the surprises lurking in interpretations of state laws guiding forest management and anything else.
— The (Eugene) Register-Guard