Courts starting to lean toward rural interests in timber cases

The courtroom victory in November for Linn and 13 other counties in Oregon will certainly not be the last word on forestry management in Oregon, but the case highlights problems prevalent in our state and, indeed, across the nation.

We complain frequently on this page about how urban interests and thinking impact not only forestry policy, but land use, environmental laws, gun restrictions and other aspects of our lives in rural Oregon.

While this particular verdict  was delivered in Linn County Circuit Court (see page 13), we can hope it will get the attention of progressive legislators based in districts whose concerns and values differ from ours in east Linn County and other rural, land-based communities around the state.

The issues in that lawsuit aren’t limited to forestry. For local residents, they include: revenue; jobs; public safety; and political trends in our state that have largely ignored the rural needs and interests.

One of the key questions in this trial was what it means to provide “the greatest permanent value” to counties such as ours. That was the mandate when the state took possession, after World War II, of 654,000 acres in a Forest Trust, 21,000 of it in Linn County.

The agreement between the counties and the state was that the land was to be managed “so as to secure the greatest permanent value.” The counties argued in court that the definition of  “the greatest permanent value” is financial benefit to the counties where these forests exist.

In 1998 state officials decided that  “greatest permanent value” means something else: “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.”

That, in essence, is the mentality that has left us with overgrown state and national forests, a constant threat of devastating wildfires and a perpetual loss of local jobs and income. Sweet Home knows all too well what this means.

Even worse off are counties such as Josephine, where 67 percent of the land is owned by the federal government, which has largely stopped cutting timber since the spotted owl decisions of the early 1980s.

In 1975 there were 22 sawmills in Josephine and Jackson counties. By 2003, 13 years after the listing of the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, there were six. In 2016, the last large-scale sawmill in Josephine County closed – after 90 years of operation. Its owners said they couldn’t get  enough timber.

Certainly, timber has never been entirely reliable as a sole pillar of the local economy for Sweet Home or Josephine County. We remember the layoffs and the fits-and-starts nature of the business. A multiplicity of economic drivers is vastly superior for any community, including ours.

But that doesn’t solve the problem that trees don’t stop growing.

Timber harvest gave these rural communities a resource with which they could prosper. It gave residents needed jobs and it helped provide safer fire conditions in the forests.

We get that the urban population, which largely dictates policy in Oregon and at the federal level, likes to see mountains covered with tall green trees. We also get that clear-cutting can be seen as bad forest stewardship.

But it’s a lot better, for us and for the world at large, to deal with such issues on the local level rather than with sweeping policies that leave rural communities impoverished and incapacitated.

Kudos to our county commissioners, John Lindsey, Roger Nyquist and Will Tucker, for taking the initiative to address this problem. Granted, an appeal might result in a different outcome, but their action has gotten attention on a national scale and it’s shined the spotlight on the fact that we’re not going to sit here and take it any more.

They are the types of concerns that prompted the #TimberUnity movement in our state. That occurred when loggers and farmers and truckers got organized during the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, when legislators were poised to approve House Bill 2020, also known as the “cap and trade” bill, to impose arbitrary limits on greenhouse gas emissions in  Ore-gon.

That would have raised fuel and energy prices to combat what were, really, miniscule contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions – at the expense of rural and low-income residents.

We also note that another court decision, handed down in federal court in Washington D.C. at roughly the same time as the Linn County victory mid-November, found that the 2.1 million acres of Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands, more colloquially known as O&C Lands, were not being managed by the BLM for sustained timber production, as required by the 1937 O&C Act.

In a second case, O&C counties argued, and U.S. District Judge Richard Leon agreed, that President Obama’s expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in the mountains east of Ashland by 48,000 acres in 2017 was illegal. The counties argued that O&C lands cannot be included by presidential declaration in a national monument in which sustained yield management is forbidden.

While Sweet Home may not be as impacted by O&C timber harvests, these decisions mirror the Linn County verdict in many ways.

Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman, who chairs the Association of O&C Counties Board of Directors, said after the O&C victories,  “We are not fond of litigation but sometimes it is necessary, and AOCC’s decision to pursue these two cases has been fully vindicated.”

It was legal action by environmental extremists that triggered the avalanche of bad forest policy and resulting consequences – particularly overgrown forests that create the  danger of large fires.

We agree with Freeman: legal action is distasteful. But it’s what got us here, and to see courts waking up to the realities that rural residents in Oregon face every day is a breath of fresh air.