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Selling Out the Elliott State Forest

The Elliott State Forest is for sale for exactly $220.8 million. That amount, not a dollar more, not a dollar less, will get you approximately 82,500 acres of forest that includes coastal old growth trees and designated critical species habitat.

The Elliott is largely comprised of Common School Fund lands that are supposed to generate money for the schoolchildren of Oregon. According to the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL), “Since 2013, because of harvest limitations prompted by a lawsuit over federal protected species and the ongoing costs of maintaining the land in compliance with state and federal laws, owning the Elliott has meant a net loss to the Common School Fund of more than $4 million.”

Robin Meacher of Cascadia Wildlands, a group that has been advocating for a creative solution to the Elliott for almost a decade, says the DSL’s noncompetitive bidding process is basically “passing the buck” to anyone who has an interest in the state forest to come up with a solution. 

Meacher says one hope is the Elliott would become part of the Siuslaw National Forest, but that would take the funds and an act of Congress to change the boundaries of the Siuslaw. 

Potential buyers for the Elliott, which lies in the Coast Range of Coos and Douglas counties, must demonstrate how they will pay the fair market value of the forest, purchase the entire acreage and show how “certain public values will be preserved.” Those values include public recreation on half the forest, protecting old growth on 25 percent of it, protecting salmon streams and providing 40 jobs. 

Max Beeken with Coast Range Forest Watch says that 25 percent protection for old growth doesn’t necessarily protect older trees, it could just set aside certain areas to become old growth and furthermore a buyer could double dip on stream protection and older forests.

Like Meacher, he is skeptical of the sale proposal and of the speed with which it is progressing. Proposals are due Nov. 15 with a decision expected in December. Meacher says it’s moving too fast to find a good solution for the forest. 

And while the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute has criticized the $220.8 million number as being too low and “a breach of fiduciary trust,” Meacher calls the lower-than-expected price an “endangered species discount” because the forest is home to the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird species whose presence restricts logging.  

Beeken points out that aside from timber investors, there are few groups that could come up with $200 million in less than six months. He says that in his personal opinion, when it comes to rushing the process on the Elliott, the decision on what happens to the forest should not be based on political reasons. 

If the process moves as fast as the DSL plans, the decision on who buys the forest will be up to the current State Land Board members: Gov. Kate Brown, Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler. However, if Brad Avakian, currently Oregon’s labor commissioner, were to win the November election for secretary of state, some conservationists think the SLB might be more enviro-friendly in 2017. 

Meacher says one kink in the works could be the lawsuit over the East Hakki timber sale in which Cascadia Wildlands is a plaintiff. East Hakki was sold to Seneca Jones timber in 2014, but conservation groups argue that under Oregon Revised Statue 530.450 the sale of most of the Elliott State Forest is prohibited. 

Julie Curtis of the DSL says the current proposal to sell the Elliott is not affected by the lawsuit and the agency is “currently waiting for a ruling from the state Court of Appeals.” Oral argument was in June and a final decision could take up to a year.

For more on the Elliott proposal, go to goo.gl/3EKLys.

Photo courtesy Oregon.gov