Elliott State Forest could be headed toward sale after State Land Board decision

The Elliott State Forest appears to be headed toward a sale to a public entity or public-private partnership.

First, though, Oregon officials must do homework to determine whether such a move is feasible.

On Tuesday, the State Land Board directed Department of State Lands officials to explore options for unloading the Coos Bay-area forest by selling it at market value to a buyer that would keep at least part of the land public.

All three of the land board’s members – Govenor John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown and Treasurer Ted Wheeler – favored the land sale over three other options State Land Board director Mary Abrams put forth Tuesday.

"I think this arrangement really makes sense," Kitzhaber said.

He added that "more due diligence" is needed before the board can sign off on the plan.

The land board ordered state lands director Mary Abrams and her staff to look further into the state's options for selling the land under such an arrangement. Department officials expect to report back to the land board in the spring for a final decision.

The Elliott, a 93,000-acre coastal forest, for years has been a battleground in disputes between conservationists who argue it should be preserved as habitat for threatened species and timber industry leaders who favor increased logging in the Elliott.

The state's constitutional obligation to manage the Elliott with the sole purpose of contributing money to fund K-12 education complicates the matter.

In recent years timber sales in the forest have contributed more than $5 million annually to the Common School Fund, a pool of money that accounts for about 1 percent of the state's annual investment in schools. Revenue from the Elliott plummeted in 2013, after conservationists sued the state over logging's impact on the marbled murrelet, a federally-protected bird that lives in the state forest.

 The lawsuit severely curtailed timber sales, costing the school fund $3 million in fiscal year 2012-13. New numbers released Tuesday showed a smaller deficit of $635,523 in fiscal year 2014-15, but Abrams said the Elliott's financial drain on the state will continue unless the land board finds a solution.

By selling the land off to a public or public-private entity, the Department of State Lands would effectively disentangle state timber harvesting from education funding, a move Wheeler welcomed.

"The bottom line, for me, is we need to bring the governance model into the 21stcentury," he said. "What we have now isn't working for anybody."

Abrams estimated that if Department of State Land maintained control of the forest, the state would need to increase logging by 5 million board feet in order to break even. Logging old-growth trees would be unavoidable, she said.

"For every good reason, people are concerned about cutting down trees of that age," she said.

Plus, she said, restrictions tied to the lawsuit make it impossible to harvest that much timber in the Elliott.

It remains to be seen just what a sale would look like. Abrams said her agency would keep the definition vague to avoid shutting out potential interested buyers.

However, she noted two options other states have used to shed unprofitable timber lands while maintaining public ownership.

The first, known as a community forest solution, would involve a collaboration between multiple parties such as nonprofits, timber interests, recreational organizations and local government. The group would develop a management plan for the forest and assume collective ownership.

The second, a trust land transfer program, would the land is bought at market value, then transferred to another public agency such as the state parks system, the fish and wildlife department, or a local government.

If the land board goes forward with a sale, proceeds from the transaction would be funneled into the Common School Fund.

The land board opted to pursue a sale over three other options Abrams put forth. Alternatively, she told the board, they could maintain ownership of the forest and work with federal agencies to loosen logging restrictions, maintain ownership but seek an outside agency to manage the forest, or attempt to transfer the land to federal or tribal owners.