The Oregon Court of Appeals has reversed a $1.1 billion verdict against the state for its forest management practices, finding the state did not violate state or local agreements regarding its timber production.
A Linn County jury initially awarded 13 rural counties and 151 local taxing districts over $1 billion in damages in 2019 after finding that Oregon breached its contract to maximize timber harvests in state forests for the past two decades. The amount included over $160 million for attorney fees.
“The Court of Appeals decision today is a victory for Oregon’s environment as well as for sound forest management,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in a statement. “The court agreed with the state’s legal position in recognizing that Oregon’s forests serve a full range of environmental, recreational, and economic uses that the Department of Forestry has authority to balance in order to secure the greatest value to all Oregonians.”
The fight, however, will not end there, as Linn County’s attorney Attorney John A. DiLorenzo Jr., of David Wright Tremaine in New York, told Law.com that the county plans to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.
“The narrow view taken by the Court of Appeals to overturn the jury’s decision, does not align with the law and the evidence we presented at trial,” DiLorenzo said. “We are confident that the Supreme Court, when weighing their own precedents, will restore the jury’s verdict for our clients and the hard-working and deserving Oregonians they represent.”
Oregon counties and the state have a long history of cooperation in the management of its forestlands. The state adopted the Oregon Forest Conservation Act in 1941 to address reforestation and fire protection with its current iteration codified in ORS 530.010 to 530.18
The state’s laws have had long standing requirements for its Board of Forestry to manage its woodlands to “secure the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state,” court records show.
In 1998, the board adopted a rule explaining what the “greatest permanent value” of the state forests means and agreed that the department would balance multiple values and uses of the forests.
The law states that the “‘greatest permanent value’ means healthy, productive, and sustainable forest ecosystems that over time and across the landscape provide a full range of social, economic, and environmental benefits to the people of Oregon.”
The rule also said that although environmentally sound timber production was important, it was not exclusive of other uses that provide a full range of social, economic, and environmental benefits to the people of Oregon.
For the counties, the “greatest permanent value” meant maximum logging revenue. The 2019 jury agreed with the counties and awarded the damages that were based on the difference in how much timber would have been and would in the future be harvested if revenue-maximization was the rule and how much was and was projected to be harvested under the 1998 rule.
In reversing the ruling, Oregon Court of Appeals Judge Douglas Tookey said the trial court should have allowed the state’s motion to dismiss. The panel said “greatest permanent value” is not a term in a contract between the state and counties.
“But, as noted, the ‘greatest permanent value’ management standard is, at the very least, ambiguous as to whether it requires maximization of revenue,” Tookey wrote for the panel.
Gov. Kate Brown celebrated the decision and said the state and counties will continue to create a sustainable approach for the state’s forests.
“In Oregon, we manage our forests not only for the benefit and prosperity of this generation but those to come,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “[Wednesday’s] decision by the Oregon Court of Appeals is a validation of the fact that a balanced, science-based approach to public forest management will produce the greatest long-term outcomes for all Oregonians, including the counties and taxing districts that receive revenue from state forests.”
Attorney and solicitor general for the Oregon Attorney General Benjamin Gutman represented the state. A spokesperson for the office directed Law.com to a statement from Rosenblum’s office.