At the Oregon State Land Board meeting on Tuesday morning, we'll learn more about the fate of the Elliott State Forest.
Last year, the state offered the 82,000-acre public forest near Coos Bay in southwest Oregon up for sale. One bid came in – led by a private timber firm. But the State Land Board decided to hold out and see if another, more publicly-minded offer would emerge.
Late last week Gov. Kate Brown released an alternate plan.
Here's five questions to bring you up to speed before the meeting:
Why did the state offer the Elliott for sale?
The forest is part of the Common School Fund, which distributes money annually to the public schools in Oregon. Because it’s part of this fund, the state says the Elliott State Forest is legally required to earn money. When timber sales slowed because of endangered species concerns a few years back, the forest stopped making money. So the State Land Board decided to sell.
What was wrong with the first offer the state received for the Elliott?
Ostensibly nothing. This offer — for $220 million dollars from Lone Rock Timber of Roseburg and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians — met all basic criteria put forth by the state. These are things like ensuring some public access, generating jobs and protecting some of the old growth from logging.
But the bottom line is the Lone Rock offer would privatize the land. Public access would be limited and there would be much less transparency about how the land is managed.
Why didn't the State Land Board accept the bid?
Some members of the three-member board — made up of the governor, state treasurer, and secretary of state — seemed to get cold feet. There have been protests and lawsuits filed by public lands advocates over the decision to sell the forest.
And there’s something to be said about the larger context here. With last year’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the new Trump administration, there’s been a lot of talk circulating about privatizing public lands. So there could be larger questions of how state leaders want to position themselves in this larger cultural zeitgeist.
What has been going on behind the scenes since the board called for alternate plans last December?
In addition to the governor’s announcement, there are a least a couple groups scrambling to put together a viable alternative for the Elliott.
The Wild Salmon Center is floating a concept that would use state money borrowed on the bond market to straight-up buy the old growth and stream side parts of the forest out of the Common School Fund. The Center’s Bob Van Dyk calls this “decoupling":
“We think incrementally and over time, we need to reduce that tension between older forests and school funding. And the way to do this is not by selling it off to a private timber company.”
Another group, which includes the Audubon Society of Portland, says they wanted to use those state bonds to create an endowment of sorts. Then they would pay the Common School Fund not to log the ecologically sensitive parts of the forest.
What should we expect to hear at Tuesday's Land Board meeting?
Certainly more about Gov. Kate Brown’s plan to keep the forest in public ownership. It looks like the idea is to take the same decoupling tactic mentioned above and buy the good wildlife habitat out of the Common School Fund. For the rest of the forest, a portion of which is already tree plantation, Oregon would work with federal agencies to create a long-term plan to produce a steady logging income for schools.
The latest is that these other groups may hold back with their own alternatives and see where the Governor's plan leads.
The Oregon State Land Board meets Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. in Salem.