By Andrew Selsky
ALBANY, Ore. — Fourteen counties that claimed Oregon deprived them of revenue for decades by limiting logging won a $1 billion lawsuit against the state Wednesday.
The four-week trial in Albany was focused on three words — “greatest permanent value” — and what they meant when the phrase was written into law 80 years ago.
Lawyers for the counties said it meant maximizing revenue from logging. Attorneys for the state argued that it included other factors such as recreation and habitat, and they accused counties of wanting clear-cutting of forests and of not caring about endangered species.
Deputy Attorney General Fred Boss said he was disappointed by the verdict. He said the state plans to appeal.
The law stemmed from a time a century ago when private lumber companies clear-cut forests. Instead of paying taxes, the companies left counties to deal with the land in a practice known as cut and run.
The counties didn’t have the resources to restore the land. So, during his 1939 inaugural address, Gov. Charles Sprague urged the Legislature to pass a bill allowing the state to designate the land as state forests, grow back the trees and manage the land “to secure the greatest permanent value” and share revenue with the counties.
The law enabled the state to adopt about 1,000 square miles — roughly the size of Rhode Island — from 15 counties that receive 64% of the logging revenues. One of the counties declined to join the lawsuit.
The counties claim the state breached the contact in 1998 when it adopted a rule defining greatest permanent value to mean healthy, productive and sustainable forest ecosystems that provide a social, economic and environmental benefits to the people of Oregon.
Their lawsuit sought $674 million in lost revenue since 2001, and $392 million in future damages through 2069.
Attorneys for the counties made it clear they want the trees treated as a commodity to be exploited.
“Timber is like a crop of wheat, except for a longer growing season, isn’t that right?” John DiLorenzo, a Portland attorney hired by the plaintiffs, asked one witness at the trial.
He also noted that smaller timber harvests mean fewer jobs in logging, milling, transportation and other services.
Scott Kaplan, an attorney for the state, declared that the counties’ vision of greatest permanent value is “turning Oregon into a tree farm from the Cascades to the Pacific.”
The counties have actually seen revenue from timber harvests increase since 1998, totaling $86 million in 2019, he said.
Witnesses at the jury trial included a history professor, retired foresters and others who have trooped into the Linn County courtroom.
The lawsuit was initiated by the Oregon Forest & Industries Council trade group and two companies that buy timber — Hampton Tree Farms and Stimson Lumber, the Oregonian newspaper reported, citing court documents.
Mills have been closing across the state for years. In the 1970s, annual Oregon timber harvests totaled more than 8 billion board feet and employed 80,000 workers at wages 30% above the statewide average, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.
Annual harvests are now under 4 billion board feet, with direct industry employment at about 30,000 and the average wage equal to the statewide average. The biggest driver behind the decline is logging on federal lands being down nearly 90%, according to the 2017 study.
Around half of Oregon is federally owned land.