SALEM — The Oregon State Land Board voted unanimously Thursday to move ahead with a plan to sell the Elliott State Forest to a buyer who will agree to conservation and job creation mandates.
The goal is to sever the connection between the forest and a state trust fund that provides money for K-12 public education. Currently, the state has a mandate to raise revenue from timber sales from the forest for schools. However, the listing of endangered species in the forest and subsequent environmental lawsuits forced the state to scale back timber harvests in recent years, to the point where the state lost money on the operation.
Under the plan the State Land Board approved Thursday, the state could select a buyer by December 2016 and close on the sale by December 2017.
Department of State Lands director Mary Abrams during the State Land Board meeting Thursday in Salem that the new plan has the potential to resolve in 26 months an issue “that has frustrated the board, as trustees, for almost two decades.” The state could extend the deadline by one more year if necessary to finalize financing for a deal, Abrams said. The land board is composed of the governor, secretary of state and state treasurer.
The state lost approximately $5 million on the Elliott State Forest over the last two years, and state officials expect the forest will continue to operate with an annual deficit of $500,000 to $1 million indefinitely under the status quo.
Environmental groups and individuals said during testimony Thursday they want the Elliott State Forest to remain in public ownership, whether that means the federal government or a state agency. The state faces the challenge of finding a buyer who can pay fair market value for the 84,000 acres in the Elliott forest, which is required because of the connection to the state school fund.
“We’re actually going to be asking for three appraisals and then a review appraisal to ensure we come up with a number that is truly defensible,” Abrams said of the property value.
Jim Green, deputy executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, told the State Land Board members they were “actually in violation of your fiduciary responsibility” because the forest is currently losing money from the school fund. “You have a role as the trustees of the common school fund to ensure you get the highest value for the common school fund going forward.”
The protocol the land board approved on Thursday will require any buyer of the forest to purchase the entire property and allow public access for hiking, fishing, hunting and other recreation on at least 50 percent of the land. The buyer will also have to protect older timber stands in 25 percent of the forestland from harvest, and ensure at least 40 direct and indirect jobs are created annually over the next decade from logging, reforestation, recreation or other activities.
Finally, the buyer must maintain 120-foot stream buffers in all areas with salmon, steelhead or bull trout and areas upstream.
Potential buyers now have 14 months to formulate proposals, although they must notify the state of their interest by Dec. 15. Environmental groups said during testimony Thursday they hope to raise money from a combination of private and public sources to purchase the forest, then possibly transfer it to a public owner. A bill that would have established a state system to protect trust land such as the Elliott State Forest, House Bill 3474, died in committee earlier this year but some people said they hope lawmakers to revive the proposal in 2016.
Seth Barnes, director of forest policy for the Oregon Forest Industries Council, said the land board should consider that the timber industry remains an important part of the economy in the southwest region of the state.
“I was just encouraging them to keep in mind the timber revenue jobs that come off these properties are incredibly important to Oregon,” Barnes said after the meeting. Barnes said the plan approved Thursday could reduce annual timber harvests on the Elliott State Forest from 40 million board feet down to 20 million, and each 1 million board feet of timber harvested directly creates approximately 11 jobs.
Josh Laughlin, interim executive director of Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, said the group wants the state to require that any buyer allow public access to the entire forestland.
“We support you working with land trust organizations and other organizations to make the common school fund whole,” Laughlin said, but he added that Oregonians want to keep the forest in public ownership. Specifically, Laughlin said the state should transfer the Elliott State Forest to the Siuslaw National Forest and pay for the deal with a combination of federal, state and private money. Christy Splitt, coordinator for the Oregon Conservation Network, said state officials should provide “bold leadership” to coordinate efforts to decouple the Elliott State Forest from the school fund in a way that preserves the forest for the public. Conservationists are “reaching out to people with capital, in the Silicon Valley” and across the country in an effort to line up money to purchase the Elliott State Forest. Splitt said the state’s time line might be too short for a trust land proposal to succeed, if lawmakers reboot the idea.
Abrams said the state plan allows time for a trust land plan, if one moves forward, and she said it is now time “to stop debating and get to work.”
“There has to be a little pressure put on the people who are interested in the future of the Elliott,” Abrams said.