Oregon considers selling forest to benefit schools

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The state of Oregon will consider selling the whole Elliott State Forest, where legal battles over logging and protections for threatened species have reduced revenues for schools.

Jim Paul, assistant director of the Department of State Lands, said Friday the forest has turned from an asset into a liability, costing the Common School Fund $3 million last year. He says the state has a responsibility to see if it can turn that around.

He adds that selling off the whole forest, whether to a timber company or conservation groups, is just one in a spectrum of possibilities that will be examined by department staff in coming months so the State Lands Board can make a decision.

The evaluation was reported Thursday by the News-Review newspaper in Roseburg, where Paul described the action at a meeting.

The Elliott covers about 90,000 acres north of Coos Bay. It includes some of the last older forest in the Coast Range, where most forests are privately owned and heavily logged. As the state has tried to increase harvest levels in recent years to meet local demands for logs and revenue, it has run into difficulties meeting federal requirements to protect habitat for threatened northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets and coho salmon.

A lawsuit from conservation groups over protections for marbled murrelets, a seabird that nests in large old trees, has resulted in withdrawal of several timber sales. Protesters have occupied timber sales to prevent logging.

The State Lands Board, made up of the governor, state treasurer and secretary of state, decided last December to sell off five parcels from the forest to get a better idea of its value in light of logging restrictions to protect threatened species.

The deadline for bids on three of them was Friday. Paul said the names of the winners would not be disclosed until Wednesday.

Most of the forest is made up of Common School Fund lands, which since statehood have helped pay for schools. Most of the original lands were sold with the idea they would generate more revenue through taxes if they were in private ownership. The forest has previously contributed $6 million to $8 million a year to the fund, which annually distributes about $50 million to schools.

“Funding schools by clear-cutting public old growth on the Elliott is an archaic scheme,” said Josh Laughlin, campaign director for Cascadia Wildlands. “We believe there is a significant conservation opportunity in front of Oregonians to buy out the school fund mandate and put this unique forest into conservation once and for all.”

Bob Ragon of Douglas Timber operators said he told the State Lands Board a few years ago that his organization did not want to see the Elliott sold.

“But if it comes to the point you can’t manage it for what it was meant for, that is revenue for the Common School Fund and timber for local economies, that is an alternative we’ll have to look at. We don’t support it wholeheartedly, but it looks like the forest is in a corner.”

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