Oregon may sell a state forest that’s no longer profitable
Elliott State Forest shows the difficult balance between profit and conservation.
Last month on Valentine’s Day, the members of Oregon’s State Land Board sat side-by-side at a table under fluorescent lights, facing an expectant crowd. They were about to take a consequential vote on whether to sell 82,500 acres of public land. It was the culmination of a decades-long fight over how the state should manage the Elliott State Forest’s lush, emerald stands of old fir and western hemlock, and more specifically, how it should balance its mandate to make money off the forest with conservation goals, like protecting threatened birds and salmon.
The three members of the land board represented three schools of thought on the matter: Gov. Kate Brown wanted the state to keep the forest in public hands. Secretary of State Dennis Richardson thought the state should sell because it needed the money. That left state Treasurer Tobias Read with the tie-breaking vote. A conservation-friendly Democrat, Read felt stuck.
The Elliott State Forest is a special type of state land, which is managed to earn money for public schools. The land board has an obligation under the state constitution to make sure the forest turns a profit — and the Elliott was losing money. And so on Feb. 14, Read cast a loveless vote to move forward with selling the Elliott. “I certainly care about this place,” Read says of Oregon’s oldest state forest. “But I also take seriously the responsibility that we have to the Common School Fund. That’s the oath I took.”
Oregon’s once-booming timber economies have flagged since the 1990s because of housing busts and weak export markets, as well as a shift in how Oregonians value forests. The public at large no longer sees its forests merely as timber farms, but as ecological havens for imperiled wildlife and as places to recreate. The Elliott, for instance, is laced with cold rivers filled with coho salmon, and occupied by elusive marbled murrelets, which nest in its old-growth trees. It’s also a place where people hike, fish and hunt. The loss of public access if the forest is sold has been raised by groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who cast the fight over the future of the Elliott as part of a larger struggle over public lands. The armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year highlighted the threats facing public lands, as a right-wing movement pushes to transfer federal lands to states. In Oregon, at least, that’s often a step toward privatization.
Critics of the sale say the state has mismanaged the Elliott for years by prioritizing timber production over the health of its birds, fish and rivers. Partly that’s because the state remains legally bound to its extractive past. “We’re trying to manage public resources with laws and policies established at a time when the other values like wildlife and climate change weren’t being considered, and the only factor was how much money you could get from timber,” says forester Peter Hayes, a former member of Oregon’s Board of Forestry. And the story of the Elliott shows just how hard it can be to balance profit with conservation on public lands.
When Oregon became a state in 1859, the U.S. government gave it 3.4 million acres of land to be used to generate money for the Common School Fund, which would build and maintain public schools. In the beginning, the state’s strategy was to sell land off as fast as possible to generate quick revenue. Then, in 1968, the State Land Board shifted its approach. Instead of selling, it would manage its lands as long-term investments, by sustainably harvesting timber and leasing rangelands for grazing. But because it had already sold so much land, there was more pressure on the remaining land to produce revenue. Today, the state holds less than a fifth of its original acreage. Though it owns only 4 percent of the forests in Oregon, it produces 9 percent of the state’s timber harvest. By comparison, the federal government owns 60 percent of Oregon forests, but generates only 15 percent of its timber.
The Elliott State Forest is 90 percent Common School Fund land, and from the 1930s to 2014, logging there has generated more than $400 million for schools. But in the 1990s, the profit-first management model encountered complications when the Northern Spotted owl and marbled murrelet were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Both species live in old trees found in the Elliott, and their listings meant the state had to change its logging practices.
So in 1995, the state adopted something called a habitat conservation plan for spotted owls and marbled murrelets. It was a blueprint for managing timber production without running afoul of the Endangered Species Act’s requirement to minimize harm to listed species. The plan was effectively an agreement between the state and federal governments that said as long as the threatened species’ numbers increased in the forest overall, logging could continue even if some salmon and birds died as a result.
But agreement didn’t last long. In 2001, when parts of the plan had to be re-written, state and federal agencies couldn’t settle on conditions everyone was happy with. For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it needed wider buffers around salmon streams that weren’t logged, and that the plan didn’t account for increased sediment or water temperatures that were likely side effects of logging that would harm salmon. In essence, the level of protections required by the Endangered Species Act clashed with the state’s profit-driven management.
Because of the deadlock, the State Land Board backed out of the habitat conservation plan altogether in 2011. Instead, they approved a new management plan, which promised to avoid areas with salmon and tree-nesting murrelets and owls entirely. The plan overall protected more acreage for the threatened species, but it was scattered among areas leased for logging, which conservationists said fragmented vital habitat. The plan also green-lighted a drastic increase in timber production, from 25 million to 40 million board feet a year, as well as increased clearcuts.
“It was very cynical,” says Martha Allbritten, a retired state wildlife biologist, who worked on the 2011 plan. “What they came up with was a way to keep cutting.”
That approach ultimately backfired. In 2012, conservationists sued the state, pointing to a 26 percent decline in murrelets in the Pacific Northwest region over four years, and tried to force the state to create a new habitat conservation plan. The judge ruled that the state could not log any murrelet habitat in the Elliott, which decreased logging and pushed it into younger tree stands. The cost of managing the forest outweighed the income it generated for the state, which lost $3 million on it in 2013.
To stem its financial losses, the State Land Board decided to sell 1,400 acres of the Elliott to logging companies. That move enflamed the dormant tensions of the 1990s timber wars, which pitted spotted owls against logging in the Pacific Northwest. Activists responded by rappelling off the state Capitol in Salem, hanging protest banners and warned: “Do not bid on these sales. If you become the owner of the Elliott, you will have activists up your trees and lawsuits on your desk.” Kathy Jones of Seneca Jones Timber Co. told the Oregonian in 2014 they bought a 788-acre parcel in the Elliott to rile “eco-radical” environmental groups. Jones promised to clearcut it out of spite. Litigation ensued — again.
Bob Sallinger, the Audubon Society’s conservation director, who has been involved with many of the court battles over the Elliott, says people in favor of increased cutting often blame litigious conservationists for forcing the state to sell the Elliott. But he says that misses the point. “It has been a hotbed of litigation because the state has acted flagrantly illegally and irresponsibly for decades,” Sallinger says. Conservationists, after all, have often gotten what they wanted from their lawsuits.
“It’s symptomatic of a larger thing,” says Hayes. “We’re a society arguing about what a forest is for, and what expectations you should have for it. Do you see a forest as a commodity, or a community to which you belong?”
After more financial bleeding, the State Land Board decided in 2015 to sell what was left of the state forest. Lone Rock Timber Management Co. and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians jointly offered to buy the remaining 82,500 acres for $220 million. They promised to maintain public access on half the land, keep 25 percent of the forest’s old growth, preserve riparian areas and provide 40 local logging jobs for a decade.
Although the board voted 2-1 in February to enter negotiations with the prospective buyers, Gov. Brown also ordered the Department of State Lands to continue looking for ways to keep the forest public. “The importance of state-owned lands has increased as the future of federal public lands has come into question,” Brown said at the meeting. Indeed, just days after the board’s February vote, the Oregon House held a hearing on a bill that would form a task force for transferring federal lands to state management.
Brown has proposed using state bonds from the budget to buy the land from the Common School Fund, and Read has said he could support alternatives to selling. “Some people have decided this is my preferred option, or that I’m happy about the outcome,” Read says. “That’s not the case.” As treasurer, Read says he is required to choose the option that will make the most money for students. He calls the Common School Fund mandate a “constitutional anachronism” that binds the state and its board members. The State Land Board meets next in May, and unless Brown comes up with a viable plan, they’re on track to privatizing the forest.
In the long run, proponents of keeping public lands public in Oregon are looking to Washington’s Trust Land Transfer Program as a model. In Washington, the state can’t sell more than 160 acres at a time. When lands for funding schools become unprofitable, Washington uses appropriations from the state legislature to buy them out, sending 80 percent of the sale price to schools, and using the other 20 percent to buy new lands that can continue generating money for schools. The unprofitable land then goes to other state agencies that can manage them for wildlife and recreation. Oregon State Sen. Arnold Roblan, D-Coos Bay, introduced a bill to establish such a program to the state legislature this year.
Chris Smith of the North Coast State Forest Coalition, a conservation group that encourages multiple uses of state forests, says conflicts like the one brewing over the Elliott will continue until Oregon finds a mechanism to deal with unprofitable lands. “We’re going to see this kind of tug of war where they can't produce enough to make everyone happy,” Smith says. “We're going to see a continued fight between revenue and other needs.”
Note: This story has been updated to fix an incorrect photo caption.
Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News.