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Q&A: What's In Store For Oregon's Money-Losing State Forest?

July 9, 2015

The Oregon Legislature has just adjourned for the year, leaving some unfinished business when it comes to a state forest that’s been the subject of controversy.

Conservation groups expressed dismay last year when state officials decided to sell parts of the Elliott State Forest to timber companies. The Legislature had the opportunity to shape the future of the forest.  But with no action on three different bills, its fate is still far from decided.

Q: What is the Elliott State Forest and how is it different from other state lands?

A: The Elliott is a coastal forest in Southwest Oregon.  It’s a little larger in acreage than the city of Portland. And about half the trees there are more than 100 years old, so it contains some prime wildlife habitat.

What makes it different is how it’s managed. It’s part of the Common School Fund.  The federal government gave the forest to the state about a century ago. Part of that deal required Oregon to make as much money for public education as possible off the land.  And it was big money-maker for decades: between  1960 and 2000, timber sales generated about $400 million for schools.

Q: Then why would the state decide to sell off parts of the forest?

A: It’s really just the same story of timber production in the Northwest. In the 1990s, the spotted owl and another forest-dwelling bird, the marbled murrelet, got protection under the Endangered Species Act.  And a few years later, coho salmon were listed. Timber sales slowed before coming to a halt in the Elliott in 2013.

And that meant the forest was actually losing money because the state still had to pay for things like fire protection. This puts the state in a tenuous position, according to John Potter, a policy adviser with the Department of State Lands.

“They’re like endowment lands that really should be generating revenue.  If not, the education beneficiaries potentially have a beef with the (State) Land Board in not meeting that trust mandate  that they have," Potter said. "If the Land Board continues to lose money on the property, then it’s open to challenge.”

So the State Land Board sold about 1,500 acres to timber companies to cover its losses and legal obligations. And this really created a lot of indignation from public lands advocates.

Q: Are more sales in the works?

A: Well not the same kind of sale that happened last year. After the uproar, the State Land Board decided last December to float a few new options. These are things like cutting costs by contracting someone else to manage the forest, completing a habitat conservation plan to allow timber sales to resume, or finding another public entity or a public-private partnership to purchase the land. A straight-up land auction is still technically on the table, but that seems to be considered as an option-of-last-resort.

Q: So what happened in the Legislature this session?

A: Not much, ultimately. None of the Elliott bills even made it to a floor vote. One of those would have forced the state to resume timber sales at a relatively high level. The other two were designed to help the State Land Board take the Elliott State Forest out of the Common School Fund.

One of those would have set up a trust – a pot of public money like they have in Washington – to pay for land transfers between public agencies, like the Forest Service. Timber companies came out against the proposal in Oregon and it died in committee.

The other piece of legislation would have clarified whether it is actually legal for Oregon to sell the land. Critics say the way the current law is written, it’s not legal.  The state can’t sell land it got from the Forest Service after a certain date.  But the state maintains that it has a Constitutional right to sell in this particular case.  

Q: So where does this leave the Elliott State Forest?

A: There’s a big decision coming from the State Land Board. A big message it's been hearing from conservation-minded Oregonians is that the whole system is fundamentally flawed. It forces a choice between funding education and protecting forests.  Critics say these two things should be decoupled.  

Q: Is the state leaning toward any particular way forward?

A: Right now, there seems to be a preference for finding some kind of public/private partnership to take over ownership. State officials are meeting with stakeholders this month. They’re hoping to find groups who want to be part of a larger deal. John Potter with State Lands said this kind of strategy would prevent future lawsuits.

“That would be a great outcome," he said. "However, this is a very complex issue and it’s more than likely that somebody is not going to be happy with the outcome in the end.  And we kind of realize that.  The hope is that enough people can feel like what we have come up with is a positive way forward.”

The next stakeholder meetings are July 16 in Coos Bay. A decision is expected at the State Land Board’s next meeting in mid-August.

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Elliott State Forest
Francis Eatherington