Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday sought an new alternative to selling a state forest in southwest Oregon to the only bidder to offer the full asking price.
At a meeting of the Oregon State Land Board, Brown called for setting aside $100 million in state bonding authority to allow for a new proposal on how the state should manage the Elliott State Forest going forward.
Brown thanked the sole bidder in the state’s effort to sell the Elliott State Forest before asking Oregon Department of State Lands Director Jim Paul to proceed with developing a direct offer of sale to Lone Rock Timber of Roseburg and the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Indians. The timber company and tribe submitted the only bid of $220.8 million for the 84,000-acre forest.
But after hearing from dozens of people opposed to the sale, the governor also said she wants the land board to have another option on the table at its next meeting in February.
She called on the public to work out a “Plan B” that would use up to $100 million in state bonds to buy the Elliott out of the Common School Fund and into a new ownership structure that could include state and private ownership.
“We are very clear that in Oregon our public lands are irreplaceable assets,” she said. “I absolutely believe we must protect the values we as Oregonians hold so dear.”
Brown said she wants to protect citizens’ rights to hunt, fish and hike in the woods, preserve the habitats that protect endangered species and protect natural resource jobs “that are very critical to our rural economies.”
She said using state bonds “is only part of the solution” and she called on the public to fill in the rest of a new proposal that would balance public access, natural resource jobs, conservation and recreational values.
“I ask you to come to the table, those of you who said we need another option, this is your opportunity,” she said. “I expect that you work quickly and collaboratively and thoughtfully, and hope we can come up with another proposal that would maintain the Elliott in public ownership.”
Brown did not clarify whether the $100 million in bonding would offset or subsidize new purchase offers from more conservation-minded purchasers that would come in at well under the state’s $220.8 million asking price. But that’s how Brent Davies, vice president of forests and ecosystem services with Ecotrust, interpreted her message.
“She was very clearly inviting additional proposals,” Davies said. “The rest of us have to come up with $120 million, and we have until February to do it.”
Davies said she plans to start working with other groups on a proposal. She has suggested using the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s revolving loan fund to access federal money for the deal. She said the Yurok Tribe has used similar funds to buy land in California.
“We have some ideas we’ve identified where we can find the money and how it could work. A lot of organizations have reached out, and we are interested in seeing something happen that includes a meaningful role for the tribes.”
During the meeting the land board heard from dozens of citizens opposed to the controversial sale.
While members of the Oregon School Boards Association and a handful of others expressed support for the sale to Lone Rock Timber and the Cow Creek Band, most of the people who spoke at the meeting asked the board to stop it. Many expressed concerns over privatizing public land, discounting the environmental value of the trees, and allowing a timber company to damage the forest though logging.
Because there was only one bid on the forest, the board is not required to vote on whether to proceed. Oregon Department of State Lands Director Jim Paul told the board the proposal meets the state’s requirements for the sale, though there are still some “gaps and uncertainties” that need to be addressed such as how public access will be managed.
Paul said he will continue working on the deal and will update the board at its next meeting in February. Right now, the board is made up of the governor, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins. By February, Democrat Tobias Read will be the state’s new treasurer and Republican Dennis Richardson will take over as secretary of state.
State leaders say they’re legally obligated to make money for public schools from the Elliott State Forest. The funds generated by the forest go to the Common School Fund. The prospects of fulfilling that obligation have faded in recent years as environmental regulations and lawsuits over protected species such as the marbled murrelet seabird have reduced logging revenue from the forest. In 2013, the forest lost $3 million in revenue.
Last year the Oregon Land Board voted unanimously to sell the forest and use the proceeds to benefit the Common School Fund. The sole bid from Lone Rock Timber and Cow Creek Band described plans for public access under their ownership but did not specify how much. It left open the possibility that the new owners might charge fees for access.
Michael Rondeau, CEO of Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, said his tribe has been working for decades to secure land in lieu of the reservation that was promised but never delivered in their treaty with the U.S. government.
“We remain a landless tribe,” he said. “When we learned the state’s decision to transfer ownership of the Elliott Forest, we were immediately interested.”
Under the tribe’s proposal with Lone Rock Timber, he said “the state can fulfill its commitment to the Common School Fund, and we can carry out a tribal priority to advance the restoration of our tribal land base after it was taken away more than 160 years ago.”