The state of Oregon is looking for a buyer for the Elliott State Forest, and more than 40 groups have come forward saying they want to be part of a deal. They all had to notify the Department of State Lands by close of business Tuesday.
“We think this was a great response,” says Elliott Project Manager John Potter.
The groups represent a wide range of interests – from timber harvesters to conservation groups, local governments and Indian tribes.
The Elliott State Forest is in the Coast Range outside of Coos Bay. The forest has large areas of older trees – prime habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet and spotted owl.
The State Land Board decided to try to sell around 84,000 acres (of the 93,000 total owned by the state) after the forest started losing money for Oregon’s Common School Fund, which produces money for public education.
“The object is to find a proposed acquisition plans for the property, first of all and foremost that meet the need to compensate the Common School Fund for the fair market value for the property,” Potter says.
Potter says a successful bid will also guarantee public access to half the forest, create 40 full-time jobs, reserve a quarter of the forest for old growth habitat and protect fish.
Max Beeken is co-director of Coast Range Forest Watch, an environmental group that has been working to preserve old growth in the Elliott. The group’s goal is to keep the forest under public ownership.
An initial state assessment puts the value of the Elliott between $250 million and $450 million. Beeken acknowledges that raising this kind of capital would require teaming up with others on a proposal. He says groups are already talking about potential partnerships.
“We’re interested in being a part of a coalition with any groups that’s looking for the same things we are,” he says.
Among the 47 parties that expressed interest are eleven private companies. These are largely timber management or investment firms based in the U.S. and abroad. Some ascribe to more traditional logging practices and others advocate for less ecologically harmful alternatives.
Canadian financial planner and asset manager Mike Prueter has his own vision for the Elliott State Forest – one that can yield a healthy return for his investors while using the “ecological forestry” management techniques. These are similar to those championed by Canadian forester Merv Wilkinson, whom Prueter cites as an example, and the University of Washington’s Jerry Franklin.
“If the numbers make sense, and I’m a numbers guy, I think there’s genuine interest,” he says. “Wouldn’t you like to get a 6 percent return, just about every year? That’s what we’re trying create here, and it would be great if all forests were managed in such a way.”
As a retired forester, Prueter and his Quantum Group envisions the Elliott as a “model forest” – one that produces timber, serves as a forester-training site, and maintains ecological health.
“In a sense I’d like to leave a legacy, and pass that baton. And pass it to our next foresters, and manage it as a model for our future children,” he says.
Tuesday’s deadline was just one in a long process designed to culminate in a 2017 transfer of the property. Everyone who submitted a letter of interest will be invited to a series of Department of State Lands meeting,
The pool of interested parties will likely shrink over the next year as more refined proposals are required.
“Forty-seven [interested parties] is a lot,” Beeken says. “But it’s not more than seems reasonable. Submitting an expression of interest was not difficult, and commits the person to nothing.”
What it does do is give the state and others interested an idea of who’s going to be at the table – and who could ultimately control the future of the Elliott State Forest.