After a monthlong trial, hearing more than 100 hours of testimony and reviewing hundreds of exhibits, some going back to the early 1900’s, the Linn County jury deliberated for only a few hours before returning with a verdict. The jury determined that the state had indeed breached a longstanding contract with the 13 plaintiff forest trust counties and awarded full damages of $1.065 billion.
The 1941 Forest Acquisition Act created the idea of greatest permanent value (GPV) to mean managing these forest trust lands to return timber revenue to the counties, taxing districts, and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). It was in 1998 that the Board of Forestry decided to change the definition of GPV, and for the last 20 years, timber revenue suffered while the state instead prioritized going far above the mandates of the federal Endangered Species Act and directing funds to increasing recreational opportunities.
While these are admirable goals, these shortfalls over the last 20 years were being borne entirely by the trust counties. What the jury found is that the trust counties have been shorted $1.065 billion to provide these additional services to all residents of Oregon, and it is only right that we be fairly compensated for these services. Over the last 20 years, trust counties have had to cut public safety, education, emergency services, road maintenance, health care, libraries and other essential services.
Some think that increasing timber harvest will harm the environment. As a Tillamook County commissioner, I am proud to be able to say that when it comes to clean water, habitat restoration and fish recovery, no Oregon County does these things better than Tillamook County.
Our victory in court does not mean we can or should diminish our commitment to our environmental responsibilities. ODF cannot disregard the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act, but I feel this jury verdict clearly specifies that the state should not go above and beyond to the detriment of the trust counties.
Timber revenue is but one part of the economic and social sustainability of rural Oregon counties. It must also be understood that jobs in the woods, mills and truck transportation are some of our rural counties' best-paying, fully benefited jobs.
In the state of Oregon, there are over 60,000 forest product industry jobs paying an average of $53,500 a year. This employment adds more than $3.2 billion to the state economy annually. Every county in the state has some economic activity generated by the forest sector. Total wood products sales in Oregon exceeded $10.34 billion in 2016.
It is important to note that interest at the state-mandated rate of 9% accrues on this damages award, which equates to $260,000 per day. It is expected that the state will appeal this verdict to the Oregon Court of Appeals and then possibly to the Oregon Supreme Court, taking years for these court decisions.
No one should blame the trust counties for this situation. Had the state performed the contract as originally promised, the counties would be in a much better financial condition and ODF would also have had the financial means to properly manage the state forests. It is not right to expect rural counties to shoulder the burden to benefit the entire state.
We in rural Oregon have a great story to tell when it comes to our magnificent forests and the sustainable forestry practices that bring so much to so many. It is unfortunate that the urban-rural divide is so poignant in Oregon. Most rural counties will never be the home of a Nike or Intel or Columbia Sportswear. Long before these companies came into existence, rural counties and their natural resource-based industries were the growth engines of Oregon. We can continue to be vibrant, sustainable, self-reliant rural counties if given a level playing field, and our success will not come at the expense of the environment if we have reasonable harvest policies.
David Yamamoto is a Tillamook County commissioner and chair of the Council of Forest Trust Lands Counties.