Controversial Sale Of A State Forest In Oregon Moves Forward After Land Board Vote
Two new members of Oregon’s State Land Board voted Tuesday – without the support of Gov. Kate Brown – to move forward with the controversial sale of the Elliott State Forest.
State Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, both recently elected to their posts, voted to approve an amended version of the sale proposed by Read.
In a rather rocky first meeting of the new board, Brown, a Democrat, and Richardson, a Republican, locked horns over her move to amend the agenda to include public testimony and to direct the staff of the Oregon Department of State Lands to pursue Brown’s proposal to keep the forest in public ownership.
After years of losing money as owner of the Elliott, the state last year offered the 82,000-acre public forest near Coos Bay in southwest Oregon up for sale. The only purchase bid came jointly from Lone Rock Timber of Roseburg and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians for $220.8 million. The state was set to move forward with the sale unless the land board decided otherwise.
On Tuesday, Read, a Democrat, proposed amending the sale to allow the state to repurchase up to $25 million in acreage “that provides key conservation habitat” using bond funds.
“Ideally, that acreage would be placed in a conservation structure that would allow for continued recreational hunting, angling, other forms of public access,” he said.
He also directed the Oregon Department of State Lands to negotiate into the purchase the “potential inclusion” of more protective Forest Stewardship Council standards for logging older stands of trees in the forest. Under his amendment, the state would also include a right of first refusal for “any of the federally recognized western Oregon tribes who might wish to purchase land” if it’s put up for sale.
“I don’t make this motion with any particular sense of celebration,” Read said. “I’m not happy that these are the constraints under which we operate. It’s my best attempt to balance what I view to be my obligation as a fiduciary and to live up to our undivided loyalty requirements to school kids in Oregon.”
Earlier in the meeting, Brown made the case for keeping the forest in public ownership and walking away from the sale.
“I am adamantly opposed to amending this protocol on the fly,” she said in response to Read’s motion.
Brown called for public testimony on the motion – despite the fact that the agenda didn’t call for it.
“Point of order,” Richardson said. “I thought we had an agenda, and this item wasn’t open for public comment.”
“Given the importance of this matter, I’m the chair, and I think it’s important we take public testimony on this matter,” Brown said.
Richardson had said earlier in the meeting that he had to catch a flight and didn’t have time to add public testimony to the agenda.
“If your intention is to prevent me from making my flight…,” Richardson said before Brown jumped in: “I am not going to prevent you from making your flight. What time do you need to leave? We’ve got plenty of time to hear everyone who’s here.”
Brown cut off the public testimony after about a dozen people spoke.
After Read’s motion passed, she directed the department’s staff to pursue a second option for the forest.
“I do believe very strongly that we should not be bound to a single proposal,” she said. “And I’m going to direct the department and the director of the Department of State Lands to consider a public ownership plan going forward and to present the results at the next State Land Board meeting.”
“Ma’am, that wasn’t the motion we just passed,” he said. “Point of order, I move to override the direction you just gave because it’s contrary to the motion the land board just passed.”
Read declined to step into the middle of the spat.
“It is not contrary to the motion the land board just passed,” Brown said. “Is there a second for the motion? There’s no second to the motion.”
At the land board meeting in December, Brown called on the public to present a “plan B” that would keep the forest in public ownership. Then last Friday she announced a plan of her own that would keep the forest in public ownership by using up to $100 million in bonds.
Under her proposal, the state would use bonds to buy a portion of the forest out of its obligation to fund public schools. By removing valuable forest habitat from the Elliott from the Common School Fund, the state could protect it from logging. The remainder of the forest would be open to logging but subject to a federal Habitat Conservation Plan, which allows for some impacts to threatened and endangered species while protecting the state from lawsuits.
The state expects the forest will still deliver an average of about 20 million board feet per year of timber to sawmills over the next 100 years, so it would still provide some logging revenue to schools.
That proposal was warmly received by conservation groups, who oppose the idea of privatizing a public forest.
But Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said he can’t tell whether the governor’s plan will deliver enough revenue to Common School Fund. He said his group is prepared to sue the state if it violates its fiduciary responsibility to schools.
“She’s throwing an idea out at the last minute,” he said. “The state’s primary responsibility is to the Common School Fund. We have to be made whole. There’s no guarantee we will be under the governor’s proposal.”
Bob VanDyk of the conservation group Wild Salmon Center said the outcome the vote Tuesday was “discouraging and disheartening.”
“Selling this forest is bad for fish. It’s bad for public access,” he said. “There was no chance for the public to evaluate Read’s proposal.”
Josh Laughlin, director of Cascadia Wildlands, said his group has yet another proposal that would chip in additional funds from conservation groups to keep the forest in public hands. In his public testimony, he cited a law that he believes makes it illegal to sell the forest.
“This is definitely not over,” he said. “Our intention today was to present the plan B the governor requested. The wind was taken out of her sails by the rest of the land board.”
Chief Warren Brainard of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, said the tribes are interested in the land itself “because it’s our homeland” and that they support any plan that returns that land to them.