The judges let stand the Court of Appeals decision that overturned a billion-dollar judgment won by the counties for past losses.
The Oregon Supreme Court will not hear an appeal from 13 counties that have sought more than $1 billion from the state for past losses and future proceeds from certain timber sales on state forests.
The court announced its decision not to hear the case on Friday, September 16. As usual, the judges did not specify the reasons for their rejection of the appeal, which was among those the court listed in its statement that it would not hear. .
The court left in place an April 27 decision by the Oregon Court of Appeals, which overturned a $1.1 billion judgment the counties won in 2019 in Linn County Circuit Court. . A three-member appeal committee then ruled that the counties did not have a legally binding contract with the state when the forest lands were transferred in 1941 to secure their “greatest permanent value”.
Acting as the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties, they argued that maximizing timber production should be the predominant use on these 700,000 acres of forest land, and filed their lawsuit in 2016. (Two of the 15 member counties, Benton and Clatsop, withdrew from the lawsuit.)
The State Board of Forestry defined “greatest permanent value” in 1998 and began multi-use management of forests in 2000. Among those uses are recreation and water quality protection.
“Having regard to the text, context, and legislative history of the provision of the Oregon Statutes of 1941…we conclude that this provision is not a term in a statutory contract between the state on the one hand, and various Oregon counties on the other,” Judge Douglas Tookey wrote for the three-member appeal panel.
The state had appealed a $1.1 billion judgment by a Linn County jury for the counties after a trial led by Circuit Judge Daniel Murphy, who has since retired. The counties had urged the Court of Appeals to reinstate Oregon’s prejudgment interest requirement, which would have raised the award to $1.4 billion.
In the 2019 fiscal year — July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019, the most recent counties on record — Tillamook County led the way with $24.7 million in state lumber revenue, followed Clatsop County at $19.7 million, Washington County at $14.1. million, Marion County at $8.6 million and Linn County at $5.9 million. Columbia County was seventh with $2.9 million.
Clackamas County, which has little state forest land, was 12th with $407,000. Multnomah County is not a member.
Total state payments to counties that year were $86.9 million. The largest state forests are Clatsop and Tillamook, the latter running through Washington County.
Virtually all current federal and state environmental protection laws went into effect after 1941. (Federal laws would still apply, regardless of the outcome.)
The Court of Appeals panel said:
“Nothing in the text of the 1941 Oregon statutes … suggests that the legislature intended the management standard of ‘greatest permanent value’ to be an unchanging promise.”
In the counties’ argument for the Supreme Court to hear their appeal, filed July 6, Portland attorney John DiLorenzo concluded:
“Counties have irrevocably ceded hundreds of thousands of acres of land relying on the Stewardship Pledge to secure their greatest permanent value. This pledged revenue is a critical source of funding for services to rural Oregonians in particular. Group members cannot get their land back, and they have no ability to recoup that funding other than to hold the state accountable to its promise.
“The court should conduct a review to correct this injustice – or, if it is really true that the state can manage forest lands in trust without worrying about generating revenue for the counties that have contributed to these lands in trust. relying on state inducements, then it should be the highest court in the state that makes that decision.”
State lawyers argued that the counties were unlikely to prevail and that the High Court would simply prolong the dispute if the judges heard the appeal.
“Furthermore, keeping this matter technically alive for another year or more is likely to hamper legislative and executive branch leaders who attempt to address the needs of rural communities constructively and in collaboration with counties,” he said. substantiate their response.
Stimson Lumber and Hampton and Associates, two companies based in Washington County, paid for part of the preliminary research before the initial lawsuit was filed in 2016.
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