Although the Oregon Department of Forestry’s attempt to implement a structure-based management plan over a 21-year period has proven costly and ineffective, forest division chief Elizabeth Dent testified Thursday in Linn County Circuit Court that more than 600,000 acres of state forest lands have not been mismanaged.
“We are proud of what we do. Our people are highly professional, skilled and talented,” she said. “We believe in what we are doing.”
In fact, Dent said, her department has complied with the so-called "greatest permanent value" rule established in 1998 and timber sales have generated about $100 million per year ($80 million in fiscal year 2018, $86 million in fiscal year 2019) to 15 counties where state forests are located.
Dent said that progress is being made on a new long-term forest management plan that shifts away from the structured-based model, which was intended to create old-growth-like habitat areas for endangered species such as the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, as well as other wildlife species. Dent said the draft plan will likely go out for public review in December.
Dent is the first witness called by the state's attorneys as they opened their side of the case in a $1.4 billion breach of contract lawsuit in which 14 counties and 151 taxing districts allege the state has violated a 1941 statute that said sustainable timber harvests that generate revenues for the counties and states should be a management priority. Other issues such as grazing, recreation and watershed protection were secondary under the statute, the plaintiffs allege.
Dent, on the witness stand for a second day, said she does not believe the 1941 statute elevated timber harvest to the top of the state’s management list. She told state’s attorney Christina Beatty-Walters that her department is charged with providing a “whole suite of assets to Oregonians,” including roads, plants and social and economic resources.
Dent said the 2010 management plan called for developing habitat structure on some 30-50% of the forest, but to date, complex structure acreage amounts to only about 11% of the forest lands.
“It takes a long time to develop a complex structure and our forests are relatively young,” she said. Earlier, she said most of the state forest lands are less than 70 years old.
According to Dent, the forest trust counties receive 64.75% of timber revenues and the state receives 35.25%. The two share road development costs for timber sales, but other management and replanting expenses are the state’s responsibility.
Dent said although the Department of Forestry’s role is managing state-owned lands, it does not receive general fund tax support. Some 98% of its annual budget comes from timber sales; the remainder comes from camping or mining fees.
She added that companies that purchase state forest timber sales have up to three years to harvest the trees. She said this offers flexibility concerning market conditions and the state tends to get a premium for that extra flexibility.
There are years when market prices have been low and the state continued to sell timber to support rural community jobs, Dent said. Sometimes her department has to draw from the Forest Development Fund, which is built up in good years.
Earlier in the week, a witness said it could be difficult to market larger trees, since many mills have retooled to cut smaller diameter logs. Dent said the state has not had a problem selling bigger trees.
In fact, she said, sales of taller, larger trees to be used as utility poles, have been “really valuable.”
Dent said that during the recession, staffing in the department was reduced by about 30% and it has not rebounded, resulting in less recreation program development and less monitoring of young tree stands.
“We really haven’t rebuilt since the recession,” Dent said. “We lost money for quite a while.”
To combat the recession’s effects, Dent said the Board of Forestry approved management plans known as “twin goals,” which aim to reduce department costs and increase income, but not at the expense of conservation programs.
Under cross-examination by John McGrory, an attorney for the plaintiffs, Dent said she did not believe timber harvesting was ever meant to be the “primary” goal of the 1941 statute, which she said also called for management based on the greatest permanent value to the state as a whole.
She believed the statute called for a balance between generating timber revenues and other values such as clean water and clean air.
Earlier in the week, witnesses for the plaintiffs said that the state and counties could have realized 3.1 million more board feet of timber and $675 million more revenue from 2004 to 2019 had state forest lands been managed for maximum wood extraction on a sustainable basis, following all Forest Practices Act regulations for wildlife and environmental protections.
McGrory asked Dent if air, water and wildlife would be protected had that model been implemented out of four alternatives. She replied that they would, although she said the Forest Practices Act provides a “minimum level” of protection. She said the Board of Forestry’s standards based on the greatest permanent value rule are higher than those in the Forest Practices Act.
For example, the Forest Practices Act requires that two green trees per acre be uncut and the state requires five. The state also requires wider stream buffers.
McGrory asked if the Endangered Species Act requires landowners or the state to create habitat for wildlife such as the northern spotted owl, or simply to not take or harm them if they are identified on the lands.
She said landowners are not required to create new habitat.
Wildlife biologist Nicholas Palazzotto took the stand late Thursday and talked about the marbled murrelet, an endangered bird species whose habitat is primarily within 50 miles of the coastline.
His testimony before Judge Thomas McHill will continue at 9:30 a.m. Friday.