Oregon’s State Land Board meets Thursday to once again consider a big question: What to do with the Elliott State Forest?
After months of consultations, the Oregon Department of State Lands is bringing forth guidelines for selling the forest to a single buyer or a group of buyers. The board is being asked to tweak that framework and to give the go-ahead for the department to start putting together a deal.
Question 1: What is the state’s goal in transferring ownership of Elliott State Forest?
A: Oregon officials want to get the Elliott out of the Common School Fund (see more here). The state’s costs to manage the forest have outstripped its receipts from selling timber from the Elliott in recent years – to the tune of $5 million since 2013. And the state is caught in a tough legal spot: trying to maximize timber sales to support public education while still meeting environmental protection standards.
Selling or transferring the forest’s ownership would theoretically relieve this burden and generate an immediate pot of money for education.
Question 2: If the land is transferred, won’t Oregonians be losing out on the benefits of public land?
A: That issue has come up often since these discussions began. And theoretically, that’s what this transfer framework will help address. The Department of State Lands says any sale or ownership transfer must include a few stipulations:
- The buyer will acquire all 84,000 of the Elliott being sold
- The land will be sold at fair market value
- The buyer will conserve public values associated with the land — like recreational access, habitat protections and economic output
Note that when the state talks about conserving the natural resources of the Elliott, it’s not just about preserving streams and wildlife habitat. This also includes preserving public access to the land as well as cutting down trees.
Under these guidelines, any land transfer could (and likely would) include future logging of the forest.
Question 3: Once Oregon gives up ownership, how would any of this be enforced?
A: State Lands says any offers to purchase the Elliott will be evaluated first to determine if they reflect the land’s fair market value.
Then, officials will consider proposals that would at a minimum:
- Allow recreational access on at least half the forest
- Create at 40 full-time jobs for 10 years, whether that be from timber harvest, forest restoration or recreation activities
- Prevent logging on a quarter of the forest to protect “older forest stands”
- Protect watersheds by leaving trees standing along streams
The Department of State Lands says a third party would probably be needed to ensure promises made are kept.
Question 4: Fair market value, buying the entire 84,000 acres, meeting these conservation goals… that’s a tall order for any potential buyer. Is this kind of sale realistic?
A: This is a big unknown. The department acknowledges the potential difficulties these sales guidelines create. To quote directly from the staff report to the board:
“There is no guarantee that the Protocol will result in even a single responsive acquisition plan, let alone multiple plans.”
“This is hard work, and there may be nobody up to the challenge.”
But after meeting with stakeholders and potential buyers, department staff continues to put forth a sale or land transfer as the best option for the state. Their report points to creative and collaborative land transfers in other parts of the country that have been successful.
If it doesn’t work, the state says at least it will have an appraisal in hand and a potential list of buyers who might be interested if the conservation frills weren’t required. And it will have a better sense of how far the public is willing to go to protect the Elliott State Forest.