Commissioners announce support of forest lands bill

Linn County Commissioners Roger Nyquist, Sherrie Sprenger and Will Tucker on Tuesday, Jan. 31, announced their support of Senate Bill 795.

Sponsored by State Sen. Fred Girod, the bill would give counties the authority to take back thousands of acres deeded to the Oregon Department of Forestry primarily in the 1930s and 1940s and which have been aggregated into nearly 700,000 known as State Forests.

Linn County was the lead taxing district in a $1 billion breach of contract lawsuit filed in March 2016 and heard in Linn County Circuit Court in October and November 2019.

The key issue for more than 140 taxing districts — counties, libraries, fire districts — was that the Department of Forestry was not managing the state forest lands based on the concept of “greatest permanent value,” agreed upon when the lands were conveyed from the counties to the state.

The taxing districts contended that the term “greatest permanent value” was understood for decades to be income generated by sustainable timber sales.

However, over the last 20 years, the state has reduced annual timber harvest and, in turn, income to the affected counties by placing greater emphasis on issues such as recreation, wildlife habitat and water quality.

The taxing districts prevailed in Circuit Court, but the decision was reversed in the Court of Appeals. The Oregon Supreme Court refused to take up the issue in September 2022.

Board Chair Nyquist said the high court’s failure to hear the case “doesn’t end this issue, this conversation.”

“This is a conversation we must force the Legislature to have,” he said. “The conditions on forest lands are changing, both in terms of more fires and safety of our communities.”

According to Nyquist, the litigants repeatedly said during the court proceedings that the lawsuit “went way beyond a revenue issue, it’s a safety issue.”

Nyquist said the continued reduction in timber harvesting not only affects counties with the state forest lands, but also the Department of Forestry’s operational budget.

“We are told they may be asking for $300 million for fire suppression and another $100 million to support their agency because they aren’t cutting enough trees to fund themselves,” he said, adding that state and federal land managers have tried to create habitat for the northern spotted owl and other wildlife since the late 1980s and 1990s.

“But the spotted owl hasn’t shown up and its competitor, the barred owl, is destroying it,” he said.

In other business, the commissioners:

♦ Approved a contract between the Linn County Road Department and Portland-based engineering consultant David Evans and Associates not to exceed $53,500 for the $2.8 million North River Drive improvement project near Sweet Home.

The county will be reimbursed by the Federal Highway Administration, according to Roadmaster Wayne Mink.

♦ Approved the purchase of a John Deere backhoe/loader for the Road Department for $145,361.

♦ Approved transferring $90,000 from the Public Health Department’s temporary help budget to Capital Outlay for the purchase of a van to be renovated into a mobile clinic.

♦ Approved a refund of $1,935 to Bob Spurlock by the Planning & Building Department.

♦ Were told that 18 young people from Linn, eight from Benton and three from Lincoln counties were held at Juvenile Detention Center in December. Juvenile Director Torri Lynn said there were 37 referrals and that referrals are slowly increasing. Some 184 young people are on probation.

♦ Approved a shelter and emergency use agreement between Linn County and Linn-Benton Community College. Commissioner Tucker noted that the college offered many advantages, including abundant open space plus a full kitchen and dining halls.

♦ Were informed by Linn County Expo Center Director Kris Barnes that facility use and income are up. He said the annual Christmas Storybook Land was busy and the Town and Country Bazaar had a record gate income of more than $8,000, plus more than 200 vendors. The February calendar, he added, was packed every weekend.

– Alex Paul, Linn County Communications Officer