GRANTS PASS, Ore. – The State Land Board is scheduled to vote on a plan to find an unusual buyer for the Elliott State Forest: one that will pay a fair market price, conserve older trees, protect threatened fish and wildlife, produce logs for local mills, and leave it open to the public.
The board, made up of the governor, the secretary of state and the state treasurer, meets Thursday in Salem to consider the 315-page proposal.
The 140-square-mile forest in the Coast Range north of Coos Bay was created in 1930, and 90 percent of it generates money for schools. It once produced $8 million a year but lately has been running $1 million a year in the red. Attempts to ramp up logging to produce $13 million annually for schools failed. Lawsuits continually blocked timber sales on grounds they failed to maintain habitat for federally protected coho salmon and the marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in big old trees.
Department of State Lands spokeswoman Julie Curtis acknowledges that finding such a buyer is a tall order, but a series of hearings identified all those elements as priorities for Oregon residents. The board rejected two other alternatives: to find a new manager for the forest and to develop a new plan for protecting threatened salmon and wildlife that would produce more timber.
Curtis said the department has been meeting with representatives of local governments and agencies, timber companies and conservation groups, but so far all are keeping their intentions to themselves. If no buyers emerge, the department goes back to the board in December 2016. Two options would be retaining the forest while accepting losses of $1 million a year or selling it without the conservation and public access restrictions.
Josh Laughlin of the conservation group Cascadia Forest Defenders said it would favor a public land trust buying the forest and selling it back to the federal government, so it could be returned to the Siuslaw National Forest. That would retain public access and conservation protections, particularly on the half of the forest that has never been logged.
Bob Ragon, director of Douglas Timber Operators, said he could not imagine a private timber company being interested in buying the forest, because of all the conditions being imposed.
“I think (the board has) struggled so hard trying to find a happy ground that would meet everybody’s interest, that the simplest solution would be to sell it to the highest bidder, and put restrictions on it like no log exports, which would keep the highest return for the School Fund,” he said.