Oregon keeps the Elliott State Forest public

The state reverses course and decides not to sell its first state forest.

 

In the southwest corner of Oregon stands the Elliott State Forest, bordered by the Umpqua River to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Logging of its Douglas firs and western hemlocks has provided millions of dollars for Oregon’s schools and steady jobs for rural communities. But in recent years, the Elliott’s state school-funding mandate has run up against federal laws protecting salmon runs and other wildlife, putting its future into question.

The Elliott State Forest’s fate seemed sealed this February when the state moved to sell the forest, which would have privatized it for further logging. But since then, under mounting public pressure, the state has changed course. On Tuesday, the State Land Board voted unanimously to keep the forest in public ownership, under a plan that will continue limited logging, take conservation steps for the forest’s rare species and allow hiking, hunting and fishing to continue. 

The state forest is unique in Oregon, since 90 percent of it is reserved to earn revenue for public schools through logging. The state put the 82,500-acre forest up for sale in 2015 after lawsuits by conservation groups resulted in logging restrictions and put the forest in the red, with losses of up to $3 million a year. The suits were based on the state’s failure to complete a plan to conserve three federally protected species -- coho salmon, marbled murrelets and spotted owls. Last fall, Lone Rock Timber Co. and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians jointly put in the only proposal to buy the forest, offering $221 million. 

But instead of accepting that offer, Gov. Kate Brown and Treasurer Tobias Read suggested using $100 million in bonds from the state legislature as a sort of “down payment” that would go to the school fund, and decoupling the most sensitive land from the school-funding mandate, so that old growth and critical habitat could be protected. They also proposed to revisit a previously abandoned habitat conservation plan, which would protect nesting sites and determine stream buffers for logging.

  • Trees grow tall in part of the Elliott State Forest that has since been logged.

    Francis Eatherington/CC Flickr
  • The aftermath of the Fish Headwaters timber sale in the Elliott State Forest. Timber sales in the forest help fund public schools.

    Francis Eatherington/CC Flickr

“I would argue the only way to keep this forest in public ownership as a working forest is with a habitat conservation plan,” Forests Division Chief Liz Dent told the state land board. She estimated that under Brown and Read’s plan, which has received support from the agencies involved, the forest would produce approximately 20 million board feet a year. The bonds mean that forest managers will be under less pressure to produce high timber revenues, like the 40 million board feet the state tried to squeeze from the forest in 2011.

Read’s plan also suggests that Oregon State University’s College of Forestry buy parts of the forest for $121 million by 2023. “It’s a bit of a twist,” Read said. “The conversation had been so focused on public versus private ownership as a sort of binary choice.” Instead, the university could retain some areas for research and conservation.

Michael Rondeau, CEO of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, expressed disappointment with the decision. The federally recognized tribe has been landless since 1853, when the federal government bought their land from them and then sold if off. The Elliott was within their ancestral homeland, and they planned to work with Lone Rock Timber Co. to oversee sustainable logging. Rondeau said that in more than three decades of working for the tribe, he has seen its government-to-government relationship with Oregon improve, and indicated that the tribe wants to work with the state on forthcoming plans for the forest. “Our commitment is eternal, as tribes have been and will continue to be here, forever,” Rondeau told the board.

Conservationists, sportsmen, and citizens roundly applauded the decision, a welcome — and unexpected — conclusion to years of feuds and litigation. “We don’t just care about the Elliott, we care about the whole state,” Maness of OSU said Tuesday. “We care about the rural communities that live there and the people who work there. It’s our lifeblood.”