Linn, Benton and 11 other counties appealed a case over the state’s management of forests and timber revenue to the Oregon Supreme Court. On Friday, the court declined to hear the case. (Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry)

The Oregon Supreme Court has ended a six-year legal battle between the state and 13 western Oregon counties over logging practices by declining to hear the case.

In 2016, the counties, along with 150 tax districts within them, brought a class action lawsuit against the state and the Oregon Department of Forestry for failing to maximize logging, and logging revenues, on about 700,000 acres of forestlands. 

The counties donated those forestlands to the state during the 1930s and ’40s at a time when most were burned, logged or unproductive. In exchange, the state agreed to manage the forests “to secure the greatest permanent value of those lands to the state.” Part of that involves allowing logging and sending millions of dollars in logging revenues back to the counties that donated the land. 

Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington counties filed the suit in 2016.

At issue was whether the law mandating that the state manage the forests to maintain the “greatest permanent value” constituted a contractual agreement to maximize timber revenues for the counties. The state has considered “greatest permanent value” to mean managing forests for values that also include recreation, wildlife conservation and water quality while limiting some logging. The counties claim they’re owed more than $1 billion for past revenue losses as well as future losses, should the state continue limiting logging on those lands. 

In 2019, a jury in Linn County Circuit Court sided with the counties, awarding $1.1 billion in damages.

The Oregon Department of Justice, representing the state, appealed, and earlier this year, Judge Douglas Tookey of the Oregon Appeals Court struck down the 2019 ruling. 

He wrote that the agreement to manage the forests for “the greatest permanent value” did not  “clearly and unmistakably create a contractual obligation” and that it does not clearly require any maximization of timber revenues for the counties. 

The counties appealed Tookey’s decision to the Oregon Supreme Court in July, which ended the legal saga with its decision last Friday to decline hearing the case.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.