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Freeman: Timber lawsuit ruling came as bit of a shock

June 27, 2017 GMT

A judge’s ruling last week that counties can’t sue the state for money came as a little bit of a shock, said Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman Monday.

The ruling came down last week in a $1.4 billion class action lawsuit in which Linn County is suing the state of Oregon over timber management on behalf of a group of counties, including Douglas County. Linn County Circuit Judge Daniel Murphy reversed an earlier decision he himself had made in the case when he concluded that the counties could not sue for damages.

Freeman said it’s unusual that a judge would reverse course like this, and he believes Linn County will likely appeal Murphy’s decision.

“It’s certainly a setback, but hopefully there will be a resolution. All hope is not lost,” he said.

The lawsuit involves land the counties gave to the state in trust, with the agreement that the state would manage the timber on them and share the revenues with the counties. The counties argue the state has prioritized environmental and recreational concerns over the past 20 years, causing a loss of money to the counties.

“Our desire from the county’s perspective would be that these lands are managed in the way in which they were intended,” Freeman said. “Back during those years when the county gave the lands to the state, they were given to the state because the county didn’t have the funding to manage them. The state said if you’ll give us these lands, not just Douglas County, but all the counties, that we’ll manage these lands for timber production and revenues. That was the agreement.”

Freeman said just a small portion of the land in question was once Douglas County’s. Even so, it’s worth noting the about 4,800 acres the state manages that were once owned by Douglas County could have generated around $1 million a year in timber revenues, he said. That’s about the amount the county generates in timber revenues off the 4,200 acres of timberland it currently owns.

That’s an amount that could have significantly benefited the county’s budget at a time when services are being scaled back or even — as in the case with the county library system — shut down.

The counties could move forward with a lawsuit asking not for money, but solely for more favorable timber management. However, one complication could be the fee for the attorney, who is working on the case with the understanding that if he’s successful he gets a percentage of the money the counties win.

Freeman said this and other lawsuits the county’s involved in over timber management and other issues against state and federal governments illustrate that counties have been pushed so far into a corner that they have no other recourse than the courts.

“It’s too bad we can’t get the legislature and Congress to act to get these problems resolved, which is our preference,” he said.