Oregon's top elected officials got behind a controversial plan Tuesday to sell off pieces of the south coast's Elliott State Forest to private interests.
Gov. John Kitzhaber described the move as testing the water for a future deal to move the rest of the Elliott into private ownership, potentially in the hands of a conservation group.
Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown and Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who comprise the State Land Board, voted unanimously to move ahead on the plan. The next step is for the state to get bids for the sale of three parcels totaling 2,728 acres of the Elliott State Forest in Coos and Douglas counties. Their action followed protests by wildlife and conservation groups.
One of the parcels is known to be home to threatened marbled murrelets, and the remaining parcels include older trees that could be considered potential murrelet habitat.
According to a report from the Department of Forestry, one of the parcels is also home to nearly a mile-long section of salmon stream that biologists consider the most productive coho habitat on the Oregon Coast.
The parcels make up about 3 percent of the Elliott State Forest. They are adjacent to private land owned by Roseburg Forest Products, Menasha, and other timber companies.
This year, after decades of conflict over the management of the Elliott, a lawsuit filed by conservation groups resulted in a steep reduction in logging on the Elliott State Forest to make sure marbled murrelets were protected as required under the Endangered Species Act. As a result, the Department of State Lands says, the Elliott no longer produces enough revenue to the state to cover the costs of managing it.
The state says it lost $3 million in one fiscal year -- even though the Oregon Constitution directs the State Land Board to manage its land holdings to generate money for public education. That prompted the State Lands Department to begin exploring options for selling some of the land.
Earlier this year, the environmental group Coast Range Forest Watch deployed volunteer surveyors. On one of the parcels proposed for sale, the group says they found marbled murrelets, which are protected as threatened species. As a result, timber cruisers hired by the state have dropped the land's value from $22.1 million to $3.6 million.
“For the competitive bid to start at that extremely low price is unconscionable,” says Francis Eatherington, conservation director of Cascadia Wildlands.
Eatherington and others have raised concerns that a timber company could acquire the land for a bargain and then log it in spite of the Endangered Species Act’s prohibition against killing a species that's protected under the Endangered Species Act.
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They say conservation groups and federal agencies will have little ability to prevent clearcutting if the land passes into private hands. Furthermore, an appraisal written by a state contractor cited anonymous timber company owners and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official stating that illegal logging of the parcels would be unlikely to trigger any consequences.
Kitzhaber said the current lawsuit filed by conservation groups, as well as the known presence of murrelets on several parcels, will likely limit any logging.
“The lawsuit that applies to the Elliott would not suddenly be withdrawn from those lands,” he said.
Kitzhaber said the sale of the parcels is necessary to break the stalemate over the Elliott and to establish a market value for the land. That, in turn, could help the state broker a direct sale of more of the Elliott to a conservation buyer in the future.
“One option, which I don’t support, is putting it up for auction on the private market. One would be to move it over to parks," the governor said. "But the obstacle in doing that is not knowing the actual value to the asset.”