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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Public To Weigh In On Turning Southern Oregon’s Elliott Forest Into A ‘Living Laboratory’

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Francis Eatherington
The Elliott State Forest. Coastal old growth, like that found in the Elliott State Forest, is prime nesting habitat of the threatened marbled murrelet.

A proposal to convert a money-losing state forest into what’s being touted as a world-class outdoor research lab is moving forward.

A proposal to convert a money-losing state forest into what’s being touted as a world-class outdoor research lab is moving forward.

The current phase in the ongoing process of reinventing the Elliott State Forest in southwestern Oregon — turning to the public for input — will come to a close at the end of the month.

The Department of State Lands had initially set a Nov. 13 deadline for public comment on Oregon State University’s draft proposal for the Elliott State Research Forest, but recently extended it to Nov. 29.

The Elliott has been going through an intensive undertaking for several years as state officials and stakeholders — especially conservationists, timber companies, and scientists — wrestle over what its best use should be. The latest plan for the 80,000-acre southwestern Oregon forest is to decouple it from the Common School Fund and create better forest management rules including public access to the forest and continue habitat conservation planning while allowing timber harvesting.

Department of State Lands Communications Manager Ali Hansen said the agency and OSU have been working on the proposal for the past two years and the original deadline was extended because OSU submitted an updated draft proposal that incorporated some of the comments and feedback it had already received during the current open public comment period.

Currently, the Elliott State Forest is managed under the State Land Board, which is composed of the governor, secretary of state and state treasurer..

Some of the pieces of OSU’s proposal include keeping the forest publicly owned with access to the public, continuing habitat conservation planning to conserve species like the marbled murrelet, the northern spotted owl and coho salmon. which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. It also allows for continued logging, recreation, education and forest research.

One of the thorniest parts of remaking the Elliott as a research forest is decoupling it from the Common School Fund — a big policy shift that also carries a $221 million price tag.

The use of raw, natural resources to pay for education in Oregon dates back to statehood in 1859. Revenues from logging on state forests have historically gone to the Common School Fund. And while it no longer serves as a major source of funding for education (the state income tax and local property taxes serve that function), the requirement to make up for the loss of revenues from moving away from historic timber-harvesting levels on the Elliott is significant.

Even before the plan to convert the Elliott into a research forest — and a driver for the state to previously consider selling much of it — was that it was no longer generating enough revenue to cover the costs of managing it.

In 2017, the Oregon Legislature approved $100 million in bonds to hold over the school fund while a search for a new owner could be found. Now, legislators need to come up with an additional $121 million to complete the transfer.

So far, 100 comments have been submitted and Hansen said that indicates people are interested in and passionate about the future of the Elliott.

“We are seeing some excitement in this idea that Oregon could have an 80,000 acre living laboratory that contributes to our understanding of climate change, thriving habitats, sustainable forest management and contributes to recreation and education in local communities,” she said. “But we are also seeing that folks want to make sure that the things they care about are adequately reflected in the proposal.

Some of those things conservation groups like Coast Range Forest Watch and Cascadia Wildlands are asking for include no logging of endangered species habitats like the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl, no more aerial herbicide spraying, public access to the forest and maintenance of a healthy forest and holding OSU accountable and following through with their commitment, like their management of other experimental forests like McDonald and Dunn forests near Corvallis.

Hansen said there is going to have to be some compromise from conservation groups, the community, and the timber industry.

“What everyone came to see is that there’s a balance here. That when you push a little on conservation, the balance tilts a little bit away from making economic contributions to local communities from harvest,” Hansen said.

Coast Range Forest Watch Volunteer Co-Director Teresa Bird said OSU’s resubmission of a final draft proposal with only a week before the original deadline did not give the public enough time to read through the draft and submit their comments. It also had some people who live close to the forest concerned.

“OSU doesn’t have a super-great track record from their other experimental forests managing for conservation and there’s been a lot of uncertainty as they’ve been putting out a lot of information, kind of up to the last minute,” Bird said. “A lot of times it’s hard to know exactly what they’re committing too and what we’re getting out of it.”

The university’s clear-cut logging of old-growth trees on its McDonald-Dunn Research Forest in 2019 generated controversy.

Despite misgivings among the conservation-minded about how OSU will manage the Elliott, Bird also said residents around Coos Bay are excited for what may come about for the forest in their backyard.

“In one sense we are just hoping we can come to a good solution so that somebody is there more and keeping an eye out for it,” Hansen said. “There is definitely the hope that it could bring some benefits to the local economy and maybe some recreational benefits as well.”

OSU’s draft proposal will also provide public transparency and accountability in decisions.

This is something that some conservation groups like Coast Range Forest Water and Cascadia Wildlands want as OSU’s past regarding the management of other research forests still haunts them.

Cascadia Wildlands Executive Director Josh Laughlin said OSU’s proposal right now would protect more than 90% of the mature stands of trees that are found in the Elliott. That leaves 3,200 acres available for experimental logging — more than he’d like to see, given that any tree-removal at all has consequences for species like the ocean-going, old-growth tree-nesting marbled murrelet. Despite protection efforts dating to the 1990s, its numbers are in decline.

“We want to ensure that we do everything we can to reverse that trend,” he said. “… We’d like to see a strong system of checks and balances, including judicial review. Which means the opportunity to have a court review something if a significant issue arises in the future.”

Paul Beck is the CEO and general manager of Mountain Western Log Scaling and Grading Bureau in Southern Oregon. He was also part of Elliott State Forest Research Advisory Committee and said being part of the committee with a diverse group of folks from different industries really helped lay down the groundwork for the draft.

“I would have probably done something differently but I am OK with it and I think it’s going to do what we were tasked with,” Beck said. He defended the idea that, as a research forest, some parts of the Elliott should be open to experiments with logging while other areas should be left untouched.

“I think if we do real science that we will find ways that we can manage these lands in a much more positive way to get to where we need to be,” Beck said. “We can give nature a helping hand and we can produce the raw materials we need to build houses and to fuel our economy.”

OSU College of Forestry Dean Tom Deluca said he understands the hesitation and the doubt from the community and conservation groups surrounding OSU’s past history with other research forests.

“There’s this history where there were events that occurred that people felt there lacked integrity of decision making,” Deluca said. “That is not something that is going to happen while I am dean.”

But he said he is very excited at the potential of this proposal going through.

Deluca said his hope is that “we study forestry, alternative forest management practices and we contrast those with traditional forest management practices to say this is a way forward for forestry.”

The State Land Board is scheduled to meet Dec. 8 to summarize and review comments.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting