The federal government must harvest more timber and share the revenue with Douglas and other Oregon counties, a federal district judge has ruled.
The decision could result in a windfall for county budgets — especially in Douglas County, where the lack of federal timber revenue has led to dramatic cuts in county programs and staff.
The Association of O&C Counties had argued in the lawsuit, filed in 2016, that the federal O&C Act of 1937 mandated the federal government manage lands formerly owned by the Oregon & California Railroad for sustained yield and split the harvest revenues with the counties in which those lands are located.
The counties said the Bureau of Land Management’s 2016 Resource Management Plans (RMPs) for the 2.1 million acres of O&C timberlands under its jurisdiction violated the O&C Act by setting aside portions of the land as reserves with limited harvests.
District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon agreed, in a decision filed Friday and announced by the counties Monday.
“Of this, there can be no doubt: the 2016 RMPs violate the O&C Act. When a statute’s language is plain, courts must enforce it according to its terms,” Leon wrote.
Douglas County has more O&C land than any other county in the state. So when the federal government began harvesting less timber in the 1990s, Douglas County was harder hit than any other county.
Federal timber harvests used to bring in tens of millions of dollars to the county’s budget. The county has limped along since, receiving smaller Band-Aid payments under the Secure Rural Schools Act since 2000 and dipping into reserves. As the reserves began running out, the county slashed its staff in half and dropped entire departments, such as mental health and libraries.
Leon’s decision was hailed as a victory Monday by Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman, who has made it his central mission since taking office in 2015 to restore timber harvests and payments to the county.
“Having a judge rule in favor of the counties is pretty important and we’re excited about it,” Freeman said. “What has been a major focus of the work I’ve been doing on behalf of Douglas County and the Association of O&C Counties, getting a successful outcome of our lawsuit’s important for Douglas County. It’s really the one thing big enough to solve the issues around continuing to provide vital services to the citizens of Douglas County.”
However, it could be a while before the county sees the money, as Freeman said the case is likely to be appealed.
The judge also ruled in the O&C counties’ favor Friday in a separate case regarding the proposed expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which would have locked up more than 40,000 acres of O&C land from potential timber harvests.
Association of O&C Counties Director Rocky McVay called the double decision a clean sweep for the counties.
“This litigation is not over by any means, but this is a huge step forward for Counties in Western Oregon that have historically relied on shared timber receipts from O&C lands to support essential public services,” McVay said in a press release.
Leon ordered the parties to submit additional briefs by mid-January about how the decision should be implemented. That’s the beginning of the remedies phase, which will determine what will replace the Bureau of Land Management’s management plans that were invalidated by the court’s decisions.