The 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest in southwestern Oregon may be staying in public hands after all.
Treasurer Tobias Read — who cast a crucial vote last month to proceed with the sale — announced Tuesday that he sees a "path forward" for keeping the forest in public hands.
Read said in an interview that it is too early to proclaim certainty that the forest would remain public, but he added, "I would not be making this statement if I did not think that I had a reasonable degree of confidence that this is achievable."
The newly elected state treasurer, a Democrat, shocked Gov. Kate Brown last month when he joined forces with Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson to move forward with the sale of the forest.
Read said then he doubted the forest could remain public and still meet its constitutional requirement to provide revenue for Oregon schools.
Brown had originally supported the Elliott sale in 2015 because environmental restrictions had dramatically reduced logging in the forest.
In December, Brown signaled she now opposed the sale. Environmental groups had stepped up their protests and only one bidder had come forward to meet the $221 million sale price.
That was Lone Rock Timber Management of Roseburg, which was working in conjunction with two tribes, the Cow Creek Band and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.
Read said he now believes Brown and key state lawmakers are making good progress on finding a public solution to the Elliott.
Their proposal is to float $100 million in bonds to buy out much of the common school fund's interest in the forest near Coos Bay.
Read's turnabout also comes after he took a considerable amount of heat from environmental groups that are a key part of the Democratic base in Oregon.
The treasurer said he has long made it clear he preferred to keep the forest public.
"To me it doesn't represent a large change," he said, "but an assessment of the best route forward."
Richardson, the secretary of state, said in a statement that he looked forward to discussing "more about (Read's) thinking" at the next land board meeting in May. Last month, Richardson said the state had a moral obligation to go ahead with the sale to Lone Rock and to the tribes.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, said he was "very excited and encouraged by this news."
"Perhaps we're getting close to a real solution that allows us basically to move forward without conflict on this forest," he said.
Read said he called Lone Rock and the tribes Monday to express gratitude for their work on a sales proposal and to tell them he would be moving in a different direction.
Toby Luther, the Lone Rock CEO and president, criticized the state's move away from a sale of the Elliott in a statement released Tuesday.
"If state leaders who advanced this process never had the intent to allow for private ownership they had a duty to be clear and forthright with their expectations," Luther said. "Good will between our state and its many rural communities is further eroded by this futile exercise."
Luther said the company and the tribes met every goal laid down by the state to manage the forest "for its environmental, recreational, and economic benefits."