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Oregon Officials Consider Public Ownership of State Forest

Wed May 10, 2017 - West Edition #10
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The three officials responsible for Oregon's oldest state forest staked out positions on its future, with two advocating continued public ownership and the third supporting public ownership of its old-growth areas.

The fate of the Elliott State Forest, in the Coast Range, is a hot-button issue, with many demanding it remain public even though logging operations that fund the state's schools have been in the red in recent years. Two members of the Oregon State Land Board voted in February to sell the 82,500-acre forest, with third member Gov. Kate Brown opposing.

State Treasurer Tobias Read, who also is a board member, agreed with fellow Democrat Brown, and suggested that Oregon State University be given the option of buying the forest for research while still allowing public access and timber harvesting.

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, the third board member and the board's only Republican, said on Facebook that a plan must retain options for public ownership of old growth areas. He also said any plan he approves “must preserve the state's reputation and the ability to negotiate agreements in good faith with business and nonprofit partners in the future.”

A timber company, Lone Rock, based in Roseburg, and a partnering Indian tribe was the only outfit to propose buying the 82,500-acre forest last year for the asking price of $221 million. That deal is on hold, at least for now.

The Oregon Conservation Network, a coalition representing 40 conservation groups, said “the plan released by the governor's office is an innovative approach to maintaining our commitment as a state to both education and the environment.”

Brown is advocating providing $100 million in state bonding to the Common School Fund, allowing it to be partially decoupled from the forest so Oregon's schools are not so financially vulnerable when the forest's timber revenues are low. After years of being profitable since 1997, net revenue from the forest fell from $5.8 million in 2012 to a loss of $1.8 million in 2014. Profitability has been borderline since then.

In a statement, Read said he supports Brown's proposal and went further, saying the state should collaborate with Oregon State University's College of Forestry to implement and fund research on the relationship between forest management and conservation of threatened and endangered species.

It is protection of such species, including the marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl, and coastal coho salmon, that led to logging being curtailed in the state forest, which encompasses steep-sided mountains thickly covered with Douglas fir, western hemlock, western redcedar, bigleaf maple and red alder trees.

Brown also outlined a habitat conservation plan in her proposal. Officials from two federal departments wrote separately in support of the plan, using identical language. Brown's office provided copies of the letters to the media.

Both the National Marines Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they could assist in preparing a habitat conservation plan and that the framework “provides significant conservation measures and creates a viable path forward to manage the Elliott State Forest for generations to come.”

Oregon State University President Edward J. Ray said in a memo to Read that the university and its forestry school are interested in supporting state efforts in the forest, and OSU would consider a purchase option.

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