This week Oregon lawmakers held a hearing for a bill that would prevent the sale of the prized 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest. The potential sale of the state-owned tract, stemming from declining timber revenues, has become hotly contested in recent months, with state officials divided on the issue, and with sportsmen and conservation groups, and the general public, weighing in.
Senate Bill 847 would give the state the ability to remove the Forest, or any unprofitable state land, from the public-school trust in which it is currently held, and which stipulates that it must generate revenue, to a different state agency or institution that could, in theory, better manage the property and prevent its sale. Removing the Forest from the public-school trust would keep the area open to the public, whereas selling it would close it off to hunting, fishing, and other recreation.
The Register-Guard notes that the bill is essentially a plan for the state to buy the Forest from itself, at a cost of roughly $100 million, in addition to continued timber revenue from the tract. The plan is backed by Governor Kate Brown, one of the Oregon State Land Board’s three members, who will ultimately decide the fate of the Forest. As the Register-Guard reports, the board’s two other members were unpersuaded by the plan when first presented with it, which doesn’t bode well for Brown’s efforts or for the Forest’s future. Not only will Brown need to convince at least one of the other board members to side with her, but the state legislature will also have to authorize $100 million or so in bonds to prevent the sale, both of which will no doubt prove challenging.
As Field & Stream reported in February, revenue generated by logging the Forest is down and has been for years, resulting from lawsuits that curbed timber production, compounded by high management costs. Since the land wasn’t generating enough revenue, the state was put in a position of needing to sell it, as required by law. Only one offer for the property came in: a joint purchase worth $221 million from Lone Rock Timber Management and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians. (The Oregonian reports that all three members of the Land Board received campaign contributions, totaling $89,000, from the party looking to buy the Forest.)
But why does the state even have to make money from the Elliott State Forest? A quick primer on public-trust lands: As Western and Midwestern states entered the Union, they agreed to various enabling acts, in which the federal government entrusted them parcels to generate revenue for state institutions. Most state land in the West, or what remains of it, sits in one of these trusts, and to generate money from these holdings, states typically lease the tracts for energy, mineral, or timber production and development—or sell them outright. Unlike federal public lands, state trust lands are not managed for multiple use, so states do not have to take public access and recreation into account when making management or sale decisions. Since the Elliott State Forest is held in one of these public trusts, it must turn a profit. The proposed bill, however, would remove the Forest from the trust, so there would be less pressure on the state to sell it off.
The Oregon State Land Board will meet again in early May to decide how, or if, to move forward with the sale. But, given the battle Governor Brown faces ahead, it’s safe to say the Elliott State Forest is not yet out of the woods.
Additional reporting by JR Sullivan