Counties pressured to exit $1.4 billion forest lawsuit
Environmentalists say withdrawal of counties will mean less pressure for the state to settle the suit
Fifteen Oregon counties must soon decide whether to opt out of a class action lawsuit seeking $1.4 billion for allegedly insufficient logging in state forests.
As the Jan. 25 deadline approaches, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups is urging counties and the taxing entities within them — including school and fire districts — to exit the litigation.
The North Coast State Forest Coalition, which represents the seven organizations, hopes to send a message that counties and taxing districts see state forests as more than just "piggy banks," said Chris Smith, the coalition's coordinator.
Linn County is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit but its boundaries contain far fewer acres of state forestland than Tillamook, Clatsop and Washington counties, he said.
"If some of the bigger counties opt out, the merits of the case are then suspect," said Smith.
John DiLorenzo, the attorney representing Linn County, said the groups within the coalition have nothing to lose with their request, but counties and tax districts will suffer remorse if they opt out.
"It's a half-baked strategy," DiLorenzo said.
The lawsuit simply aims to recoup revenues lost by the counties when the State of Oregon changed forest policies in 1998 to focus on the environment and recreation instead of maximizing logging, he said.
By making that decision, Oregon's government breached its contract with counties, which turned over their forestlands in the early 20th Century in return for a portion of timber revenues, DiLorenzo said.
Counties and tax districts that exclude themselves from the lawsuit won't impact forest policy because the case is purely about financial damages, he said.
"Opting out is a useless gesture that amounts to turning down money," DiLorenzo said. "They will have a lot of explaining to do the next time they ask voters for more money."
Entities that exit the litigation also won't have any influence if Oregon does decide to enter settlement negotiations, he said. "You have to be at the table to have a judge listen to you."
Smith, of the North Coast State Forest Coalition, countered that counties and other entities that opt out of the case will reduce the state's possible liability and thus the pressure to settle.
"They haven't won the case yet and I'm not at all sure they will," he said.
Opting out also reinforces Oregon's argument that state forests are valuable for multiple purposes, including water quality and recreation, Smith said.
While Tillamook County has decided not to exit the litigation, the coalition still hopes to sway other entities, he said. "We're trying to make the case and our supporters are talking to their (county) commissioners."
Linn County filed the lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of itself and 14 other counties that donated roughly 650,000 acres to the State of Oregon.
Since then, its complaint has survived the state government's motion to dismiss and has been certified by Linn County Circuit Judge Daniel Murphy as a class action, which means other counties and tax districts are included in the litigation unless they object.
The lawsuit claims Oregon breached its contract with counties in 1998 when it emphasized environmental and recreational goals as the "greatest permanent values" of state forests, rather than maximizing revenues.
Up to 150 local taxing districts that receive timber sales receipts from harvests from the Oregon Forest Trust Lands contract could be eligible join the suit. That includes schools, libraries, public safety agencies and other districts.
The other counties that benefit from the trust are Benton, Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Marion, Polk, Tillamook, and Washington.