The Elliott is managed as part of the Common School Fund, and is obligated to make money for public schools. But with declines in timber sales in recent years, the state has been losing money on the land.
The state was met with harsh criticism last year when it sold off two smaller pieces of the Elliott to timber companies to help meet its financial requirements.
Officials hope to avoid that kind of backlash this time around by including stipulations on the sale that would preserve, at least in part, some of the “public” characteristics of the forest. Oregon will now look for a buyer to purchase the entire 84,000-acre Elliott, while still providing recreation access, habitat protections and community economic benefit.
Finding a buyer willing to meet these requirements, as well as pay fair market value for the land, could be a tall order. Jim Paul with the Department of State Lands said the state is positioned to help bring groups together and broker a deal.
“The state’s done it in the past. It is not part of our normal type of thing that we do. I think we have the staff and we have the direction and leadership to do it,” he said.
The land board has been contacted by more than 300 different groups expressing interest in the sale. Paul said that there could be several kinds of buyers interested, including timber companies, conservation land trusts, state or federal agencies or a combination.
Paul said there is optimism that this kind of sales model will be successful because it has worked in other parts of the country.
“Of course, the big difference in what we’re trying to do and a lot of the past examples is the magnitude of what we’re doing – both the amount of land and the value,” Paul said. “We’re talking of property worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Not everyone is happy with the decision to sell the Elliott. Dan Prahl of Coast Range Forest Watch was at the State Land Board meeting. He points to the fledgling carbon market, where companies offset their own emissions by purchasing carbon credits.
“Getting rid of these lands without evaluating the carbon potential is not in the best interest of the children, not in the best interest of the state. Because if a carbon market develops, then the Elliott lands are the most productive in the world,” Prahl said.
The land board wants to have all purchase offers on the table by fall 2016. The state is holding an informational meeting for potential buyers on Sept. 17.