For the second time in a week, Linn County has won a forest management battle in court.
Last week, Linn County, 13 other forest trust counties and 151 taxing districts won a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Forestry concerning timber sales payments on more than 600,000 acres of state forest lands.
On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management’s 2016 Western Oregon Resource Management plans were invalidated because, according to Judge Richard Leon, of the U.S. District Court of Columbia in Washington, D.C., they failed to meet the mandate of the original O&C Act.
The O&C lands were originally granted to the Oregon & California Railroad to build a rail line between Portland and San Francisco, which never occurred. In 1916, the lands were conveyed to the U.S. government by an Act of Congress. They are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Proceeds from timber sales on the lands are shared with the counties in which the lands are located.
The act requires the BLM to manage the more than 2.1 million acres of O&C (Oregon and California) forestlands on the basis of sustained yield forestry, maximizing annual harvests, but not cutting more timber than is grown annually.
“This is great. It justifies what the O&C Act is all about,” said Linn County Commissioner John Lindsey. “There has been a real problem with people trying to change management of the lands. Management of the O&C land isv is spelled out in the Act and that is for sustained yield harvests.”
There are some 86,000 acres of O&C lands in Linn County. Annual revenues to counties have declined in recent years to about $2.
There are 53,000 acres of O&C lands in Benton County, but the county isn't a member of the Association of O&C Counties and did not participate in the lawsuit. There are 18 O&C counties: Linn, Benton, Coos, Clackamas, Columbia, Curry, Douglas, Josephine, Jackson, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook, Washington and Yamhill.
Although the 2016 BLM management plan allocated annual timber harvests of about 278 million board feet — about 75 million more board feet than current harvest levels — that is well below the long-term harvest of about 500 million board feet the plaintiffs charged.
Revenues from the O&C lands provide income for public services including law enforcement, search and rescue, public health and youth and senior services.
In 2017, then Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken noted in a court declaration that there are about 375,000 acres of O&C acres in Lane County. He said the average annual payment from 1960 through 2011 was more than $20 million (in constant value dollars as of 2011).
In 2016, Lane County received about $3.1 million. The county had to cut 68 positions from its sheriff’s office.
Judge Leon also set aside former President Barack Obama’s proposal to expand the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument on O&C lands by some 48,000 acres.
Leon ruled that no president has the authority to override federal law and an Act of Congress.
In February 2018, Multnomah County withdrew from the class action lawsuit because the county commissioners opposed the effort to invalidate the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
The lawsuits were initiated by the Association of O&C Counties and the American Forest Resource Council.
“Forest policy in the Pacific Northwest is complex,” said Travis Joseph, president and CEO of the American Forest Resource Council. “But these important legal decisions are crystal clear.”
Joseph said that in both cases, the judge ruled that the O&C Act means the BLM’s management plan is illegal and Obama’s proclamation about expanding the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument exceeds presidential authority.
“These are major wins for the rule of law and rational, science-based forest management,” he said.
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said the decision “was a long time coming, but it has been worth waiting for.”
“We are not fond of litigation, but sometimes it is necessary and the Association’s decision to pursue these two cases has been fully vindicated,” he said.
In the land management case, Judge Leon noted in his 18-page decision: “Of this there can be no doubt: the 2016 Bureau of Land Management Plans, violate the O & C Act. When a statute’s language is plain, courts must enforce it according to its terms.”
“This is a clean sweep for the counties,” said Rocky McVay, the Association’s executive director. “This litigation is not over by any means, but this is a huge step forward for counties in western Oregon that have historically relied on shared timber receipts from O&C lands to support essential public services.”
Parties will now submit “remedies” briefs as to how the court’s decisions can be implemented on the ground. That will include developing a process to replace the current BLM management plans and remove 48,000 acres of O&C lands from the national monument that the court said were illegally added.
The remedies briefing is to be completed by mid-January.