Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read has proposed yet another plan for keeping the Elliott State Forest in public ownership.
He’s recruited Oregon State University to split the cost of buying the 82,000-acre forest out of the state’s Common School Fund, which requires the state to use the land to make money for schools.
“I went to them and said is there a way this could work?” Read said. “If we can conclude this, I really feel good about the chance to have that asset in the hands of the university in a way that benefits the state in all kinds of ways."
Read’s plan builds on a proposal by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown that would use $100 million in bonds to buy a portion of the forest out of its financial obligations to the Common School Fund, which requires the state to use the land to make money for schools.
He wants to use that bond money as a “down payment” on a purchase that OSU would complete in the next six years. Together, the state bonds and $120.8 million from OSU would buy the entire forest out of the Common School Fund, delivering the full appraised value of $220.8 million to make the fund whole.
Read is one of three members of Oregon’s State Land Board, along with Brown and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. The board is meeting on Tuesday to discuss how to proceed with a controversial effort to sell the forest near Oregon’s south coast.
In December, with conservation groups opposing the sale, Brown called for alternative proposals that would use the state's bonding authority to keep the forest in public ownership.
In February, she herself proposed using $100 million in bonds to protect a portion of the forest while opening the rest of the land up to logging under the guidance of federal agencies.
On Thursday, she released a more detailed version of her plan, which relies on developing a Habitat Conservation Plan to authorize logging on a portion of the forest. The plan requires federal approval and allows for some impacts to threatened and endangered species while protecting the state from lawsuits.
Read said his plan would “work together” with the governor’s plan.
“As we look at the governor’s ideas and ours I’m really excited about how they can line up well,” Read said. “I think we’re now in a spot where there’s a path that’s viable.”
OSU President Edward Ray sent a memorandum of understanding to Read expressing the university's interest in having an option to purchase the land for up to $121 million by 2023. The purchase option would kick in after the approval of a Habitat Conservation Plan for the forest.
The university would own the land as a research forest, using revenue from logging to fund research while keeping the land open to public access and protecting older tree stands and stream buffers, according to the memorandum.
On Thursday, Richardson released a list of criteria he will apply in making his decision on the forest. While he had previously expressed support for selling the forest to Lone Rock Timber and the Cow Creek Band, this week he suggested a willingness to consider other options.
“I can appreciate that people change their minds,” he said in a letter. “I will earnestly consider both Governor Brown's and Treasurer Read's proposals for how best to manage the forest to meet our fiduciary responsibility to help fund Oregon schools."
Conservation groups, hunters and anglers voiced support for the plans from Read and Brown to keep the forest in public ownership while protecting forest habitat and public access.
“We appreciate the creative approach offered by the governor and treasurer, and we thank them for their leadership and hard work for a balanced vision,” said Ken McCall of the Oregon Hunters Association. “Hunters have relied on the Elliott for decades. We need to keep the whole forest public and accessible.”
Earlier this week, the Oregon School Boards Association sent a letter to the governor threatening to sue if the state's plan for the Elliott falls short of keeping the Common School Fund whole.
Jim Green, executive director of OSBA, said he still has some concerns that the plans from both Read and Brown could end up draining money from the Common School Fund before delivering the full $220.8 million in appraised value – unlike the plan to sell the forest to the highest bidder.
While the state is renegotiating a Habitat Conservation Plan for the portion of the forest that remains in the Common School Fund, he said, managing that forestland could end up costing more than the land is delivering in revenue.
“As long as either plan doesn’t cost the Common School Fund anything, we can be supportive,” he said. “The issue for us is they just can’t hold an asset that’s going to lose money.”
The treasurer's plan includes an option for minimal, “custodial” management of the forest, which Green said could save money. And that could be key to avoiding a lawsuit.
“We don’t want to spend our revenue that way, but you need to stand up for the kids and the Common School Fund at some point," Green said. "We’ll wait and see what the State Land Board does on Tuesday.”