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Benton County Board Votes to Remain in Class Action Timber Lawsuit

Last Modified: 01/24/17
First Published: 01/24/17
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Board votes to remain in class action timber lawsuit
January 24, 2017

Corvallis, ORE.-The Benton County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 to remain in the class action timber lawsuit.

Commissioners cited several reasons to remain in the lawsuit, primarily the erosion of agreements and joint revenue strategies to the detriment of the counties and districts, and having a "seat at the table" if the lawsuit results in settlement negotiations.

"We received an incredible amount of testimony. The written testimony favored opting out. That was not true at the public forum. At the public forum, it was to remain in. Our community is commended for their level of engagement," said commission chair Anne Schuster.

"This is the hardest decision that I've made as commissioner. My heart, my head and my gut are all telling me different things. If this was strictly a lawsuit about dollars doing their fair share, this would be a lot cleaner decision."

Today's vote came after a lengthy discussion among commissioners. Commissioner Annabelle Jaramillo began the discussion with a brief history of how the current forest management practices were adopted and stated support for the balanced approach to include conservation in management and consideration of multiple values.

"I support the current forest management plan and I'm not convinced that litigation is going to get us to where we need to be for a responsible structure of managing our forest lands. I support opting out of the lawsuit," said Commissioner Jaramillo.

Commissioner Xan Augerot stated that this is an incredibly difficult lawsuit, especially given her previous experience working in the conservation sector.

"I am very challenged because the county board fully supports the balanced forest management practices currently undertaken on state forest lands. I applaud the Oregon Department of Forestry and all the incredible work they've done to balance the Greatest Permanent Value rule and consider multiple values including carbon stores, recreation, water quality and more," said Commissioner Augerot.

"However, there is a pattern over time of erosion between the state and the county and funding mechanisms. For example, the county's Environmental Issues Advisory Committee provided a cogent analysis for the board, and the majority of voices in that analysis were for staying in the lawsuit to address the breach of contract issue."

On Mar. 10, 2016, Linn County filed a $1.4 billion breach of contract class action lawsuit against the state claiming Oregon Department of Forestry breached its contract with 15 counties, including Benton County, by failing to appropriately conduct timber harvests on state forest trust lands.

Based on a 1939 law called the Forest Acquisition Act, the counties agreed to convey cut over and burned forest land to the state in exchange for the state's agreement to pay the counties a percentage of the revenue it generated from the forest land. Under Oregon law, the state is required to manage the forest trust lands "so as to secure the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state." Originally, "the greatest permanent value" rule focused on timber harvests.

In recent decades, forest management practices shifted. Timber harvesting is no longer the only value, with wildlife habitat, water quality, recreation and quarrying activities becoming additional considerations in forest management plans.

The lawsuit alleges the state has not "maximized the potential revenue that should be generated from the forest trust lands."

Benton County and the other 13 forest trust land counties have until Jan. 25, 2017 to determine whether to opt-out of the class action lawsuit.

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