The car winds its way along a narrow gravel road of the Elliott State Forest. Allison Tarbox has a CB in hand, tuned to the local channel.
“Nine-and-a-half up the 2000,” she monotones into the ether as the vehicle passes a small numbered sign tacked to a tree.
The car’s at mile 9.5 heading “up” State Forest Road 2000. Tarbox, who’s with the Coos Watershed Association, calls out our position to give logging crews in the area a heads-up.
By law, the Elliott is a forest for the people of Oregon – owned by the state and operated to generate revenue. That's one reason for the roadside clearcuts that alternate with thick forested stands.
Tarbox, by now on foot, pushes aside bare salmon berry canes with her forearms to avoid the thorns. Elk tracks lead to a stream and a deep, cold pool of salmon.
“You see ‘em?” she asks. “Kind of where you see the reflection of the alder, you can see a couple tails moving.”
These coastal coho are at risk of going extinct.
By law, the Elliott State Forest is also for them – the fish, plants and animals that live here.
Meeting the needs of people and the non-human residents of the Elliott has not been an easy task.
The state says it is constitutionally obligated to generate money off the Elliott State Forest for public schools. The money goes to the Common School Fund. After generating timber revenue for decades, the forest took a $3 million hit in 2013. And the outlook hasn’t gotten much better since.
Logging revenue dipped after environmental groups sued the state for not protecting endangered species. Oregon had previously walked away from efforts to update a conservation plan for the forest after federal regulators wouldn’t sign off on its proposal to protect coho salmon.
Now the state is moving to get out of the Elliott business.
Last year, the Oregon Land Board unanimously decided to sell the Elliott State Forest. They put 84,000 acres on the market for a flat $220.8 million. The Board said they would decide between competing bids based on how well they met other environmental, economic and public access criteria.
But only one bid came in – a joint proposal from Roseburg’s Lone Rock Timber and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians.
“I can say that with a straight face, even though I'm smiling, we didn't anticipate being the only proposal,” said Jake Gibbs of with Lone Rock Timber.
Under the bid, Lone Rock would have 87-percent interest in the Elliott; Cow Creek would hold the rest. The Confederated Tribe of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw would be paid to manage the conservation easement. The bid lists several other non-financial partners as well.
For the timber industry in Douglas and Coos counties, a viable bid on the table is a positive development after years of frustration over the Elliott.
Bob Ragon, Executive Director of Douglas Timber Operators, says Lone Rock doesn’t have any facilities to process the logs the company would harvest.
“Local mills will purchase that timber and use that to produce products and employ people,” he says. “And it’s a nice log that could make some unique and high-value products.”
Because there was only one bid, the State Land Board’s job is a little easier than it might have been. Under the protocol, the Board isn’t required to give an up-down vote. The Department of State Lands can move ahead with negotiations – unless the board instructs it to do otherwise.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins comprise the board. They will get their chance to do that at a meeting on Tuesday.
"I don't think we're scheduled for a vote this meeting. But more to direct the department as to what other information is needed going forward," Atkins said.
The Department of State Lands says the proposal meets the basic requirements put forth by the state, but there are details that still need to be worked out. How public access will be managed has been a concern.
“Everybody is interested in maximizing as much on the public benefit side as possible,” Atkins said. “We set some minimums. We hoped people would be able to exceed them.”
In a budget speech earlier this month, Brown floated another possible to ensure public benefit: keeping the state involved in the land financially.
“Their proposal noted that they invite additional partners. In response to that overture, I am actively looking to the state’s bonding capacity as way for the State to participate in a purchase agreement that maximizes public benefit,” Brown said. “I look forward to discussing all available options with them and the Land Board at our upcoming meeting.”
…Or not to sell
Access to the Elliott State Forest is at the top of the list of concerns for John Gale of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The group, which was founded in Oregon more than a decade ago, advocates for hunting and fishing rights.
For him, public ownership is a key to ensuring access for hunters and fishermen. The Elliott State Forest is one of those places where public ownership ensures open gates for outdoor enthusiasts.
“Anyone can go and hunt and fish without securing permission without paying for the right to access those lands,” Gale said.
The Lone Rock purchase offer provides for public access, but doesn’t stipulate how much and leaves open the possibility of fees. The complexion of the Elliott for hunters and anglers could significantly change with a transfer of ownership.
“It’s been really core to a lot of experiences to a lot of people,” he says. “It’s been there since 1930, so you've had a few generations of people growing up hunting and fishing there.”
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is joining several environmental groups that are opposing the sale outright. There have been protests and rallies, with another planned before the coming Land Board meeting.
The Oregon-based Cascadia Wildlands has been involved in years of endangered species litigation surrounding the Elliott State Forest. It staunchly oppose transferring it to a private company and tribe that plans to use industrial logging practices – large-scale clearcuts.
Cascadia and other groups are putting some of their faith in the courts to stop the sale.
“There’s an Oregon law that’s a sentence long that just prohibits the sale of the Elliott State Forest,” says Cascadia Wildlands' legal director, Nick Cady.
The case went before Oregon Court of Appeals last summer. The court could rule at any time.
“Little to no attention has been paid to that lawsuit by the decision makers… even though it has an incredible bearing on the outcome,” he said.
Boots in the water
Allison Tarbox and the Coos Watershed Association (CWA) have been watching the story unfold from inside the Elliott State Forest, knee deep in the West Fork Millicoma River.
They’re taking a different tactic. They’re remaining neutral.
“Our one goal through this process is to work with whoever is going to be owning the land. We just want to keep doing what we’re doing,” Tarbox says.
Because there’s a huge amount to be done. The Elliott isn’t pristine. Early timber crews altered and scoured the rivers to transport logs. Up until the 1970s, state game officials removed downed trees in a misguided effort to help fish migrate. And stream sides haven’t been protected from logging long enough for trees to grow large and fall, replacing the water-cooling shade that was lost.
CWA projects have moved large logs back into the water to create fish habitat. They’ve also opened culverts and other barriers that prevented salmon from passing upstream.
At Stulls Falls in the heart of the Elliott, water rushes over a series of low, wide rock shelves. It’s lovely to view, but not so great for fish. Tarbox says salmon would bunch up right below the upper falls with nowhere to go.
“They would try to jump on this bedrock sheet. They would just be flopping on the slab. It was really sad to see,” she said.
Her crew came in this summer and cut three small channels. They did it by hand with concrete saws and jackhammers. They then lugged all the rock up beyond the highwater mark in five gallon buckets. It only took six people about three weeks to get the job done.
Now there’s only one salmon visible in the pool below the falls, perhaps waiting for some privacy before making the final acrobatic push upstream into 16 miles of now-open spawning habitat.
It’s this kind of boots-in-the-water work Tarbox wants to continue doing in the Elliott.
“We love working up here because we’ve had so much success. We want to keep that going.”
But to do that, they’ll need the goodwill of the owner, whoever that happens to be.