The Oregon Department of Justice told the State Land Board Tuesday a recent state Supreme Court decision will not affect a proposal to repurpose the Elliott State Forest for research.

The high court ruled last month the state’s 2014 sale of 788 acres of the Elliott State Forest to a private timber company was illegal. The court sided with three environmental groups — Audubon Society of Portland, Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands — concluding the land must remain in public ownership.

Since then, there have been questions about the future of the 80,000-acre Elliott State Forest in southwest Oregon.

During the meeting of the State Land Board, which is made up of the governor, the treasurer and the secretary of state, Gov.  Kate Brown asked about the ruling’s impact. Specifically, she asked whether it affects the proposed conversion of the Elliott from a working state forest to a research forest managed by Oregon State University. Responsibility for the forest would shift from the Department of State Lands to OSU. The state of Oregon would continue to hold ownership.

Assistant Attorney General Matt DeVore said the plan does not indicate OSU will be taking over ownership, which means it would not run afoul of the Supreme Court decision.

“Currently the forest is owned by the state of Oregon as a component of the common school fund and the proposal would have OSU managing the forest as a research forest — but it wouldn’t be a change in ownership,” DeVore said.

Since 2018, Oregon State University has been working with the Department of State Lands to develop a proposal to keep Elliott State Forest public.

Backers say OSU’s proposal will transform the Elliott into a world-class research forest, continue habitat conservation planning while allowing timber harvesting and providing multiple forest benefits and decoupling the forest from the Common School Fund. 

The Department of State Lands and OSU’s update to the State Land Board Tuesday included a report on research and work over the past year by an OSU-led exploratory committee, input from an advisory committee of stakeholders that was convened by DSL, feedback received in multiple public forums, and conversations with tribal governments, local governments, statewide and local issue-specific stakeholder groups, and other interested Oregonians.

The OSU College of Forestry’s Interim Dean Anthony Davis said by turning the Elliott State Forest into a research forest, OSU can implement the studies needed to chart a course for achieving conservation and carbon sequestration. 

“In many ways, the simple question that we spent a year trying to explore was, is there a research forest hidden in the hills of the Elliott State Forest? The answer is yes,” Davis said.

“I strongly believe that with dedicated effort, board partnership and a focus on the long-term needs of Oregonians and Oregon’s forests, we could see an Elliott State research forest address the synergies and trades off for conservation and production and livelihood objectives.” 

In the initial design for an Elliott research forest, 58% of the land base would be allocated to conservation, 26% to “extensive, multiple-values management,” in which certain trees would be harvested from forested stands, and 16% to “more intensive management” that reflect the traditional harvesting practices, which have included clear-cut logging.

“The Elliott is the appropriate size and scope to answer vital questions to help us understand opportunities and trade-offs as we manage forests for the myriad values they provide. Values such as habitat, carbon storage, timber production, and the quality and quantity of water for our communities,” Davis said.

During public testimony, Reed Wilson with the Benton Forest Coalition in Corvallis said he is grateful the state is allowing the process to move forward, concerning the Elliott. But he was skeptical that Oregon State University would do a good job safeguarding the public’s trust. He was referring to a recent controversy involving OSU’s cutting of old-growth trees on the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest.

“We’re not absolutely opposed to this proposal, research forest can be a great thing but it’s a dangerous experiment considering the college’s history. However, it could revised the college’s management approach and by doing so realigning the states philosophy in forest management.” 

After the update, Gov. Brown said she is open to the continuation of the research, but more work needs to be done.

“I want to make sure we get our federal agencies on board with (a habitat conservation planning) process. I want to take a look at how do we frame this with a, should we say more of a climate change approach but I am really pleased.”