The Gales Creek Overlook in the Tillamook State Forest. File photo: Chas Hundley//Gales Creek Journal
A slew of bills in committees at the Oregon Legislature could reverse tax cuts for harvested timber that have been on the books for scores of years, and that observers say has kept nine counties in Oregon's timber-heavy regions from receiving more than $3 billion since 1990.
If passed, the bills also would toss out the timber industry’s commodity commission, which has been accused of illegally acting as a lobby firm, the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, which some say has a history of behaving like a quasi-governmental state agency in favor of big timber’s desires.
A Linn County Circuit Court jury in November 2020 concluded the state of Oregon breached its contract with Washington County and 11 other rural counties, as well as 151 taxing districts, for not returning maximum revenues on state land that came from the state spending resources to rehabilitate lands destroyed by wildfires.
The damage awarded the counties by the jury was an astounding $1.065 billion with 9 percent annual interest; the largest-ever monetary jury award in Oregon's history — and the state plans to appeal to the Supreme Court if its attorneys’ arguments don’t win in appeal or in a higher court.
What happened was so-called forest trust land companies, about 15 of them, deeded burned forest lands back to the state in exchange for Oregon being proactive in preventing wildfires, promising to replant forests, and sharing a portion of its proceeds from what timber the state was able to harvest.
If the billion-dollar timber judgment is upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court, it means money for schools will be cut throughout the state, including Washington County, and a plethora of other state services will not be funded if counties, eg. taxpayers, are on the hook for repaying more than $1 billion of the timber judgment.
Washington County taxpayers contribute the second-largest amount of personal income taxes to the state's coffers than any other Oregon county, except for Multnomah County.
Taxpayer liability included, Washington County will be $90 million in the hole if the jury award stands, as will taxpayers and cities in seven other Oregon counties.
Some county officials, however, have welcomed a settlement, saying the money will provide a cash influx to many public services where funding is desperately needed, especially since the COVID-19 virus outbreak and resulting economic shutdown in Oregon and across the U.S.
This is a developing story and will be updated as the 2021 legislative session commences.
Correction "cut" was inadvertently dropped from first paragraph and has been added, Oregon Forests & Industries Council should say "Oregon Forest Resources Institute."