education, News, Oregon Department of Forestry

School district sues state in attempt to undo forest habitat conservation plan

One of the smallest school districts in Oregon is suing the state in an attempt to send a landmark forest habitat conservation plan back to the drawing board. 

On behalf of the Jewell School District in the heart of the Clatsop State Forest in northwest Oregon, a Portland law firm filed the suit on March 20 against the Oregon Department of Forestry, State Forester Cal Mukumoto and state forest chief Mike Wilson. The suit, filed in Clatsop County Circuit Court, alleges that the recently passed Western State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan will drastically reduce revenue for the school district, forcing it to cut staff and services. 

The conservation plan, which has been years in the making, was approved March 7 by the Oregon Board of Forestry on a narrow vote. It will regulate logging and conservation on about 630,000 thousand acres of state forests for the next 70 years, including the Clatsop State Forest, to protect 17 threatened or endangered species.

Under the plan, the volume of wood permitted for harvest from state forests in Clatsop County will drop 35% and, in turn, cut 35% of the funding to the district, according to John DiLorenzo, a lawyer with the Portland-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which filed the suit.

The district’s current $4.3 million budget is paid entirely with timber revenue from state forests harvests. Under the state education funding equalization formula  which takes into account enrollment along with student needs for language services, disability, poverty and more  Jewell would have to operate on about $3.62 million, according to the Oregon Department of Education. That’s about 17% less than its current operating level. The education department is prepared to supply the district, serving 145 students in grades K-12, with enough funding to ensure it has $3.62 million, but DiLorenzo said that would be unacceptable.

“We are used to providing a level of education that likely exceeds the model that is provided to other districts that are wholly reliant on the state equalization formula,” DiLorenzo said. “We want to keep providing the same level of quality education that we provide.”

The suit is based on a 2010 administrative rule mandating that the Oregon Department of Forestry harvest enough timber from state forests to execute the agency’s forest management plans. The suit says the harvest levels approved in the Western Forests Habitat Conservation Plan fail to do that.

“Defendants have ceased to uphold their end of the bargain,” the filing reads. “Instead, defendants have pursued policies that fail to generate the level of revenue required under defendants’ own rules  resulting in significant revenue shortfalls for both defendants and the district.”

The bulk of Oregon’s public school funding comes from state income taxes. More than 200,000 of the more than 400,000 acres of forested land in Clatsop County is owned and harvested by Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs, according to data and maps from the nonprofit Coast Range Association. Those trusts, such as Greenwood Resources and Weyerhaeuser, pay no income or corporate taxes to the state or county.

Jewell School District Superintendent Cory Pederson did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. Members of the Jewell School Board decided last week to sue, according to a meeting agenda and minutes for the board’s March 18 meeting. 

DiLorenzo, who unsuccessfully sued the state for over $1 billion in 2019 for not allowing enough logging in state forests, said the district approached him and asked him to take the case. The suit is about more than school funding, he said. The district wants to send the Western State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan back to the forestry department so it considers opening up more land for logging that’s been put into conservation.

“We want higher harvest levels. Harvest levels translate directly into revenue for our district and for other local districts, and without them we have less,” DiLorenzo said. “An increase in harvest level will surely allow the department of forestry to breakeven, too, which is what the law compels them to do.”

He added: “I’m hardly one to obfuscate the truth. What we are up to is putting a maximum amount of pressure on the department of forestry to do what we think it should have done from a policy perspective, which is to increase harvest revenues above and beyond what this particular habitat conservation plan is going to result in.”

The state forestry department does not comment on pending litigation, according to Joy Krawczyk, public affairs director.

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

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