By Rob Davis,
The Elliott State Forest, the 82,500-acre Coast Range parcel the state nearly sold to a timber company, will stay in public ownership, bringing an end to Oregon’s years-long flirtation with divesting the land.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and state Treasurer Tobias Read voted Tuesday in Salem to halt the sale, pulling the remote forest back from the brink of a plan that was wildly unpopular with hunters, anglers and environmental groups.
The potential divestiture had put Oregon at the forefront of a nationwide debate over publicly owned land, leaving a Democrat-controlled state positioned to do something that some Republicans, including President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, have rejected.
Huge questions about the forest in Coos and Douglas counties remain unanswered. Chief among them: Which agency will manage the land, what role logging and recreation will play in its future and how many acres of the forest will be protected with a proposed $100 million investment from state taxpayers.
The sale had been driven by the archaic system by which Oregon holds the state forest. The state is constitutionally required to use revenue from logging the land to benefit schools. But logging was curtailed by environmental lawsuits after the state in 2011 tried to nearly double the amount of clear-cutting allowed each year.
The vote was a major win for Brown, who successfully fought back a February attempt to sell the land. Her plan would use $100 million in taxpayer-funded bonds to end the state’s obligation to earn money for schools from the forest’s old growth trees, riparian areas and steep slopes.
Under Brown’s proposal, decisions about the rest of the land would be entrusted to what’s called a habitat conservation plan, a blueprint that would dictate where logging could occur and where habitat for threatened species like the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl would be protected. It would need federal approval, something that federal agencies withheld the last time Oregon tried to draft such a plan for the Elliott.
Liz Dent, a state department of forestry official, said the expected timber harvest under Brown’s plan would be about 20 million board feet each year – roughly half as much as the state’s aggressive 2011 plan that led to the situation today.
The vote was a remarkable turnaround for Read, a Democrat who has been assailed by environmental groups since siding in February with Richardson in rejecting Brown’s effort to keep the land public. Oregon Wild and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters had attacked the new treasurer through a social media campaign with the hashtag #betrayedmyvote.
Read and Richardson would have sold the forest for $221 million to Lone Rock Timber Management, which bid in conjunction with Native American tribes and The Conservation Fund. The state would’ve received an assurance that half of the forest would be kept open to public access.
Three months later, Read is now touting his own plan to build on Brown’s, offering Oregon State University the option to buy the forest for $121 million after the initial $100 million state investment.
Such an idea, which would decouple all of the forest from its school-funding obligation, appears to be a long shot.
Ed Ray, Oregon State’s president, described Read’s idea as “a burst of imagination,” noting that the university would use revenue from logging it to pay for its purchase. “I haven’t got $120 million lying around,” Ray said.
Thomas Maness, dean of Oregon State’s forestry school, said the university’s 15,000 acres of timber holdings do not include any old-growth habitat home to threatened species including the coastal Coho salmon, northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. The Elliott would provide the school with a place to conduct long-term research to understand how active timber harvesting impacts them.
“If we don’t learn how to manage with these listed species we’re going to see disaster” in the state’s timber industry, Maness said. “We’ve learned nothing about managing with spotted owls.”
Rather than borrowing $100 million from taxpayers and paying additional interest on the debt, Richardson proposed swapping the high value state land for federal forests that aren’t home to endangered species. He offered scant detail, saying it would be modeled on similar transfers in Minnesota, California and Utah.
— Rob Davis