Elliott State Forest must remain in public ownership: Editorial

As lawmakers knuckle down to balance a state budget with a $1.8 billion hole in it, a tiny meeting occurs in Salem Tuesday that could have huge outcomes for present and future generations. The State Land Board will meet to discuss the fate of the Elliott...

Elliott State Forest must remain in public ownership: Editorial

As lawmakers knuckle down to balance a state budget with a $1.8 billion hole in it, a tiny meeting occurs in Salem Tuesday that could have huge outcomes for present and future generations. The State Land Board will meet to discuss the fate of the Elliott State Forest. One possibility includes selling it outright.

Hardly a magnet for sustained public attention, the Elliott is one of the last great amalgamations of citizen-owned forests in Oregon. Its 82,500 acres of rugged terrain, near Coos Bay, is coursed by fish-bearing streams and trails, and its steep slopes feature prolific stands of trees that are prime seabird habitat and the prize of loggers from surrounding communities. Over the last decade and a half, things got complicated. Environmental and species protections forced limits on logging, driving the state's logging revenue down and firing up protesters who at the sight of a harvest would tree-sit and bring work to a halt. Lawsuits mired forward motion. Schools across Oregon, historically the beneficiary of the Elliott's revenues, have scraped about for the lost money.

The land board tried but failed to fix things. In 2012 it approved a new management plan for the Elliott that would restore logging revenues - essential if the forest were to comply with its constitutional mandate to generate money for public schools. But a lawsuit followed, and the Elliott continues to fail to generate sufficient revenue. In 2014 the board initiated the Elliott Alternatives Project to examine possible land transfers and a renewed effort to win federal clearance for a habitat conservation plan that would protect species while boosting logging. No go. Facing the Elliott's bleak revenue projections for the years ahead, the board in 2015 pulled the plug and set terms for a sale of the forest.

Oregonian editorials Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Laura Gunderson, John Maher, Helen Jung, Mark Katches and Len Reed. To respond to this editorial: Post your comment below, submit a commentary piece, or write a letter to the editor. If you have questions about the opinion section, contact Laura Gunderson, editorial and commentary editor, at 503-221-8378 or lgunderson@oregonian.com.

Selling the Elliott would do three things right away: bring in $202.8 million in cash, whose earnings from investment would go to schools; release the state once and for all from Common School Fund burdens; and allow state officials to meet their constitutional obligation of ensuring the Elliott benefits public schools.

But a sale of the Elliott would hurt over the long term by robbing Oregonians of their rich, biodiverse forest in a time when logging, recreation and environmental values must be brought into balance for lasting public benefit. Taking the Elliott out of public ownership would be short-sighted. The forest should instead be a model of resource and recreational management as population and economic expansion, not to mention climate change, challenge policymakers.

Tuesday's meeting will be complicated by the land board's new membership. Gov. Kate Brown is its only senior member. She will be joined by first-timers Tobias Read, the new state treasurer; and Dennis Richardson, the new secretary of state.

Significantly, Read proposed a bill in the 2015 Legislature that would have provided for land transfers of the sort that might save the Elliott from mandated timber production while allowing it or most of it to remain in public ownership. His spokesperson told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board last week that Read had not yet taken a position on the Elliott's destiny.

Richardson toured the Elliott on Friday and in a telephone interview said he is undecided about the forest's fate. But he made clear he wants to know what has changed since 2015, when the board, which included Brown, decided selling was the best solution. He expressed concern about the state's "integrity" in putting the forest out to bid and then, after receiving an earnest proposal, changing direction.

Brown last December suggested the state could bond $100 million to purchase some of the forest while partnering, perhaps, with Oregon tribes and environmental nonprofits. She also put out a call for other imaginative solutions. But as of last week, there were none. That leaves the Elliott staring down the one bid for it by Lone Rock Timber Management Company, whose minority financial partner is the landless Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

Yet on Friday afternoon, Brown converted her December suggestion into an announced plan whereby the state would commit $100 million to "decouple a portion of the forest from the Common School trust lands" while ensuring the Elliott "would remain in public ownership, with either the state or tribes owning the land." It's clear Brown opposes privatization of the forest - a good thing - though she could find challenge in Read and Richardson.

Former state Treasurer Ted Wheeler had it right when he said in December that the newly configured land board should take the time it takes to get things right. That, above all else, will be the board's test on Tuesday.

Unimagined future values are at stake. Let's keep the Elliott in public ownership.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

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