Coast Range fog settles on the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay.

Fog settles on the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay, Ore., in this 2016 file photo.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

The yearslong saga over the fate of Oregon’s Elliott State Forest may soon come to a close.

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During this year’s short legislative session, Oregon state lawmakers are considering a bill to convert the 91,000-acre forest in Douglas and Coos counties into a “living laboratory” to study forest management, habitat conservation, carbon sequestration and more. The plan also allows some logging.

It’s the product of years of negotiations by a wide variety of stakeholders including conservation groups, timber operators, Native American tribes and Oregon State University. The bill appears to have unanimous support from the State Land Board, which is made up of Gov. Kate Brown, Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

“It shows that Oregonians can come together, they can work around a common vision, they can disagree passionately about details, but they can still figure out a way to compromise and reach an outcome that represents a real win for Oregon,” Read said at a recent hearing on the bill before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery.

The bill before lawmakers now is the latest iteration of an idea first pitched more than three years ago to create the Elliott State Research Forest.

Related: OSU backs out of plan to assume ownership of Elliott State Forest

It establishes a public entity similar to Oregon Health & Science University or the Oregon State Fair to own and administer the forest. Such entities have some of the flexibility of private companies while still adhering to public accountability measures such as state public records laws.

Oregon State University would manage the forest and lead the research operation.

“A world-class research forest like the Elliott will be another asset in how we adapt to this rapidly changing environment,” Fagan told lawmakers.

The plan for the Elliott would protect most of the oldest forest — about 93% — which is critical for species such as the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. Safeguards for coho salmon will also be baked into the plan.

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The plan for the Elliott State Forest includes protection of habitat essential for the marbled murrelet.

Portland Audubon conservation director Bob Sallinger said that currently about half of the trees in the Elliott State Forest are around 65 years old. If the research forest plan goes forward, about 70% of the trees will be closer to 100 years old.

“Those are really strong conservation wins,” said Sallinger, who serves on the advisory committee that helped craft the plan. “And they’ve been an incredibly long time coming.”

The plan allows selective timber harvest on the Elliott, as well as some clear-cutting and cutting of older trees.

“This process hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t always been fun,” Paul Beck with Douglas Timber Operators told the Senate committee. “We were all passionate, but, thankfully, through the process we were all open, honest and frank.”

Oregon established the Elliott State Forest in 1930 and linked it to the Common School Fund. Money generated from logging the forest helped fund public education.

However, as logging restrictions tightened in Oregon, especially around sensitive habitat for owls and murrelets, the Elliott could no longer generate enough money to pay what it owed public schools. Since 2018, the Elliott State Forest has generated no revenue for the Common School Fund and actually drained more than a million dollars per year from the fund in management expenses.

Related: How a fight over owls and trees became one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the century

The bill before the Legislature would sever the tie between the forest and the Common School Fund. That would eliminate the Elliott’s ongoing financial obligation to schools but would also require the state to compensate the fund for the full value of the forest, which is about $221 million, according to the most recent appraisal. The state has about $121 million left to pay, according to the Department of State Lands.

Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said he’s “all in” in support of the bill, but wants to make sure the forest in his district can pay for itself through timber harvesting before the Land Board votes to decouple it from the Common School Fund.

“I just want to make sure that all those boxes are checked before we do the end and final piece of the decoupling,” Brock Smith said.

Paying off the forest’s obligation to the Common School Fund will require a separate funding request from the governor. The Elliott advisory committee is also in the process of developing and seeking approval for a habitat conservation plan with federal regulators, and writing a forest management plan.

“We would not be supporting [the bill] if we had any questions about the viability of what we’re talking about at this point and that all of these pieces would be secured before it actually does advance,” Sallinger said.

If passed and signed by the governor, the law would take effect 91 days after the end of the legislative session.

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