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Oregon Land Board To Discuss Elliott State Forest Ownership Options

<p>The Elliott State Forest.&nbsp; Coastal old growth, like that found in the Elliott State Forest, is prime nesting habitat of the threatened marbled murrelet.</p>

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.

The Oregon Land Board will be discussing the options for public ownership of the Elliott State Forest at its meeting in Salem on Tuesday.

Last year, the board voted to keep the 82,500-acre forest in public ownership rather than sell it into private hands.

Since then, seven different parties have told the state they want to play a role in public ownership.

The groups will all present information to the board on Tuesday, according to Ali Ryan Hansen with the Oregon Department of State Lands.

“This is the beginning of a conversation about the future of the Elliott that is expected to take some time but by having these parties come forward we take that first step,” she said.

State leaders have begun the process of establishing a federal Habitat Conservation Plan for the forest to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl and marbled murrelet while allowing for some logging.

But it’s unclear how the state will separate the forest from its obligation to raise money for schools under a public ownership plan.

The board plans to vote on a declaration that will allow the state to use $100 million in bonds to provide revenue to the Common School Fund while protecting a portion of the forest from logging. But the forest has been valued at $221 million, so the state needs an additional $121 million to decouple the forest from school funding requirements.

The parties that have expressed interest in sharing public ownership include Oregon State University, Coos and Douglas counties, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Raw Foundation.

However, in a letter sent to the board, Oregon State University Provost and Executive Vice President Edward Feser made it clear that while OSU is interested in creating a new Elliott research forest, the university is not in a position to provide the $121 million needed.

Coos County Commissioner John Sweet sent a letter saying his county could raise the funds needed in a year and manage the Elliott as it does its own 15,000-acre forest. He said the county would plan on ensuring proper habitat for wildlife and letting the trees grow longer than it does on the county forest before logging them to generate revenue. He also noted the county is open to partnering with tribes.

Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice also sent a letter saying his county would like to buy the forest using cash and bonds. His county currently manages 4,400 acres of forestland. Boice said his county would be open to teaming up with Coos County and the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Indians, which was included in the original proposal to sell the forest to Lone Rock Timber Management Company.

"Local constituents are very frustrated by the overall lack of management and progress on the Elliott State Forest, as well as its failure to contribute to the local economy," Boice wrote. "Putting the forest in the hands of local entities will help rebuild public trust."

Dan Courtney and Michael Rondeau with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians told the board in a letter that their interest in owning the forest has not waned but that they do not have the capital to make the purchase on their own.

It was "unfortunate and offensive" that people suggested the tribe was only involved in the original plans to purchase the Elliott as "a front for a private timber company," they wrote. "That was not the case. There was no other means by which any Oregon tribe could finance a project like this."

Alexis Barry, CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, wrote a letter saying they would also like to own the forest and would use a combination of tribal partnerships, federal and private grants, private and public financing to raise the necessary funds.

"The Elliott lies at the heart of our tribe's ancestral territory," Barry wrote. "In terms of both historical justice and modern technical capability, it is both appropriate and fitting that our tribe resume our ancestors' stewardship role over the Elliott."

Leaders with The Oregon Department of Forestry wrote to the board to express interest in working with all interested parties to manage the forest as it does many other forest lands in the state. An entity called Raw Foundation also wrote in with an offer to purchase the property.

The board doesn't have a timeline yet for making any decisions on public ownership options.

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