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Timber lawsuit splits Washington County commissioners

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A lawsuit filed by another county splits two commissioners in Washington County over logging in state forests and the proceeds from timber sales.

Washington County is the most populous of the 15 represented by the Council for Forest Trust Land Counties — Clackamas County also is a member, but Multnomah County is not — and also was the third largest recipient of state timber sales in 2015.

Part of Washington County lies within the Tillamook State Forest, which emerged from the lands known as the Tillamook Burn in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Now we have these forests and everybody thinks that is the way it has always been,” Board Chairman Andy Duyck said. “But it has not always been that way.”

Duyck and Commissioner Dick Schouten offered differing views on the lawsuit and the county’s potential participation in it. The county would be in unless a majority of the five commissioners vote to opt out.

The board has not yet discussed the issue.

Schouten says that although he has not come to a final judgment, he is wary of the motives of Linn County, which sued the state to recover up to $1.4 billion.

The state lost a bid to dismiss it in Linn County Circuit Court, and Judge Daniel Murphy ruled earlier in October that 14 other counties and 130 other local governments can be part of what is now a class-action suit.

After widespread foreclosures triggered by the Great Depression 80 years ago, counties turned over forest lands to the state.

Instead of managing more than 700,000 acres for timber production and money for counties and other local governments, the lawsuit alleges that the Oregon Department of Forestry has placed an increased emphasis on environmental protection and conservation.

“Linn County has been pretty strong. When you think of the balance, it has put its thumb heavily on timber revenue,” Schouten said.

“I think our county needs to have a balance. It’s not exactly clear to me yet where Linn County is going with this (lawsuit). Everything I have heard is so far oriented toward the timber cut.

“We will see if all these counties are of one mind and feel comfortable as a class. We will see if our interests square up sufficiently with those of Linn County. I have my doubts, but that’s me.”

Lawyers for the state, and representatives of conservation groups also opposing the lawsuit, raised questions about how Linn County’s legal costs are being borne largely by the timber industry — and specifically by Hampton Tree Farms and Stimson Lumber, two big purchasers of state timber, virtually all of it outside Linn County.

Duyck offered a different perspective.

He argues that while he would oppose timber production as the dominant use of state forests to the exclusion of other values, logging can be carried out simultaneously with the protection of watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat, and public recreation.

“When I farm, I cannot do whatever I want with my land and destroy endangered species if they were to be found there, or build homes on my land — there are restrictions,” Duyck said.

“It’s the same way with timber; we can’t degrade the environment. But that is where we have a disagreement.

“I am guessing we will be part of the suit. I think the votes are not there (on the board) to opt out. But we have a stake in the outcome, whether we are in or out.”

The money count

The amounts vary by year, depending on timber sales, but about $9.1 million went to Washington County in the budget year that ended June 30. Of that total, $2.2 million went to county government, $6.2 million to education — $1.8 million of it into the county school fund, which is distributed to all districts based on student enrollment — and about $650,000 to rural fire protection districts.

Over 10 years, according to county tabulations, Washington County as a whole received a total of $85 million, $58.2 million of it for schools, $20.5 million for the county itself, and $6.2 million for fire protection districts.

In the previous budget year ending in mid-2015, Washington County ranked third behind Clatsop and Tillamook counties in state payments. Linn County was a distant fourth. A report for the 2015-16 budget year will be presented in November at the annual conference of the Association of Oregon Counties.

Schouten said the county government share of $2.2 million in 2015-16 is a tiny share of the overall county budget, which tops $1 billion from all funds in the current year that started July 1 and just under $250 million in the county general fund.

Duyck acknowledges that while county government’s share is tiny, state timber sales do matter to other local governments — particularly school districts in Forest Grove, Banks, Hillsboro, Vernonia and Gaston, which shared $4.3 million this past year.

“The reason this is significant is that this is not money that offset what the state gives to schools, so it’s extremely important in Washington County,” Duyck said.

Cross-purposes?

Schouten said the Washington County board, back in 2003 and 2005, endorsed a swap that resulted in timber-producing lands going to Tillamook County in exchange for other lands that eventually became part of L.L. “Stub” Stewart State Park, which opened in 2007.

“We are not timber-dependent at all,” he said. “Our future is providing recreational facilities and opportunities for people in this county.”

Schouten also said that when the issue of “conservation areas” within state forests arose a few years ago, the board (including Duyck) unanimously supported them in a 2013 resolution.

“The county has consistently spoken for a balance,” Schouten said. “We’re generally happy with where the Board of Forestry and Department of Forestry have gone.”

Oregon administrative rules, in defining “greatest permanent value” of state forests, does list at the top “sustainable and predictable production” that generate income for the state, counties and other local governments.

But Schouten said other values, such as recreation and watersheds, also yield economic benefits.

“Nothing in there says that one value or one activity has greater weight,” he said. “They are all important and need to be considered when coming up with what is the ‘greatest permanent value’ on an ongoing basis for state forest land.”

Duyck said he also supports management of state forests for multiple uses.

“We have no question” about the agency’s ability to manage forests for water quality, recreation, fisheries and timber,” Duyck said.

“It has done it in the past and has done it for decades. It has been doing it extremely well with higher harvest levels than what we see now – and it has been doing it in balance.”

Duyck said he did support the concept of “conservation areas” back in 2013, “but we never talked about how much or where.”

“Of course, conservation is important,” he added. “There are some places you should never harvest, because the slopes are far too steep or it (logging) will degrade water quality.”

Duyck said he supported the revised management plan for northwest Oregon forests — Tillamook and Clatsop — back in 2010.

“We thought it was a way the agency could achieve the goals of continuing the harvest levels and still get other benefits,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the assumptions that were made back then did not pan out. Growth had not occurred the way we thought, and harvest has been reduced. We were told that if it did not work, we would change the management plan. That is where we are today.”

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