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State will not sell Elliott State Forest

As the State Land Board prepares to meet Tuesday morning to discuss the Elliott State Forest, environmentalists and outdoor sporting groups are breathing a sigh of relief in the contentious battle over the forest’s fate. 

Although the prospect of auctioning the entire 93,000-acre forest to the highest bidder was among solutions studied in a recent report, the land board won’t consider it.

“That’s not a scenario we’re putting forth,” said Julie Curtis, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of State Lands.

Groups including Trout Unlimited, the Sierra Club, Cascadia Wildlands and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers lauded the news.

“The table is set to find a lasting solution for the Elliott State Forests that protects its outstanding water quality, salmon and wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities,” Cascadia Wildlands campaign director Josh Laughlin said in a statement.

With privatization off the table, the board must choose between several other options for an asset that, recently, has become a financial liability.

Oregon’s constitution requires the state to manage timber in the state forest, devoting proceeds from timber sales to public education. But after a 2013 environmental lawsuit over the listed marbled murrelet put a halt to almost all logging in the Elliott, timber revenues dwindled. Last year, the Elliott made no money for the school fund, but the Department of State Lands lost $3 million managing the land.

To make up for last year's deficit, the state land board sold three parcels totaling 1,453 acres. Tuesday's meeting could lead to a decision on what happens to the remaining acreage.

The four options are:

  • Request for management proposals: The state would continue owning the Elliott and using it to fill the Common School Fund, but would look for other agencies to manage it “in a manner that fulfills the long-term trust responsibility and meets all state and federal environmental laws."
  • Continue Department of Forestry management: The state would continue to own the forest and the Forest Department would continue managing it, but would look for a “middle ground” with the federal agencies in charge of overseeing protected species that would allow an increase in timber harvests.
  • Seek new owners: The department would seek to sell the Elliott to a public agency or public-private partnership.
  • Tribal or federal ownership: The department would negotiate a deal to hand the land off to the federal or tribal government, potentially in exchange for land with fewer restrictions on logging.

The latter two options assume Oregon ends its reliance on timber sale proceeds to fund public education. Revenue from timber sales contributes to the Common School Fund, which makes up about 1 percent of annual funding for Oregon public education.

Rhett Lawrence, conservation director with the Sierra Club’s Oregon chapter, said tying timber sales to education funding is “a failed policy of the past.”

“Oregonians should not have to choose between protecting salmon, clean water and old growth on the one hand, and logging to fund education on the other,” Lawrence said.

In addition to its economic value to the state, the forest is a treasured coastal spot for hiking, hunting and other recreational activities. It also contains critical habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet, Oregon spotted owl and Coho salmon.

The land board, which is comprised of Gov. John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown and Treasurer Ted Wheeler, has received nearly 1,200 comments regarding the Elliott’s fate. Nearly all of them were in favor of protecting the forest.

The board has budgeted an hour longer than usual for Tuesday’s meeting, in anticipation of a long public comment period.

Cascadia Forest Defenders, a group known for staging acts of civil disobedience in opposition to logging in the Elliott, will hold a protest at the Oregon State Capitol before marching to the land department's offices for the 9 a.m. meeting.

Cordelia Findley, a spokeswoman for the group, said although a decision not to privatize the forest is good news, her group wouldn’t favor an alternative that allows the forest “to be managed as a timber farm.”

“A lot of the options kind of fail to meet those desires,” Findley said.

The photo provided by the Oregon Department of Forestry shows a stand of trees on the Elliott State Forest north of Coos Bay. AP Photo