- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 2, 2017

ALBANY, Ore. (AP) - A judge has withdrawn an earlier opinion that appeared to jeopardize a lawsuit filed by Linn County and other governmental units over the management of state forest trust lands.

Linn County Circuit Court Daniel Murphy ruled in June that Linn County and the 140 other counties and taxing districts included in the class-action lawsuit could not sue the state for monetary damages, potentially throwing a wrench in the lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Albany Democrat-Herald reported.

The lawsuit seeks $1.4 billion from the state for failing to maximize logging revenues on forest trust lands.

The judge agreed to withdraw his decision after a July 13 meeting with attorneys for the state and Linn County.

The lawsuit involves state forest trust land, more than 700,000 acres (283,000 hectares) of mainly logged-over or fire-damaged properties that were acquired by counties through tax foreclosures in the 1930s and 1940s and then turned over to the state for management. A 1939 law says those lands must be managed for “the greatest permanent value to the state.”

At that time, the phrase was generally interpreted to mean that the lands should be managed to maximize timber harvests. Money from those timber sales went back to counties and other taxing entities. But over the years, the state broadened the definition of “greatest permanent value” to include recreation, habitat protection and other goals. As a result, timber harvests diminished on the state land - and so did the money from those harvests. The lawsuit argues that broadening the management goals, and the resulting financial hit, amount to a breach of contract.

In June, Murphy, citing a doctrine known as sovereign immunity, found that since the plaintiffs in the suit are part of the larger entity of the state as a whole, they could not sue for damages.

The attorney for Linn County, John DiLorenzo, asked to meet with Murphy and the state’s attorneys to ask Murphy to reconsider his decision. A conference was held July 13. DiLorenzo argued that a clause in state law allows sovereign immunity to be waived on contracts entered into by all state agencies, and that it says a suit may be maintained against any county and against the state of Oregon, the Democrat-Herald reported.

Murphy agreed to withdraw his June 20 decision, the newspaper said.

Motions by the parties are due by Sept. 11. A pretrial conference is set for Sept. 14.

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