SALEM — The State Land Board has given Oregon State University until next fall to finish putting together a plan to take over management of the Elliott State Forest.
The future of the 82,000-acre parcel in the Coast Range near Reedsport has been in legal limbo for years. While it’s supposed to generate revenue for the Common School Fund, harvests have been limited since a coalition of environmental groups filed suit in 2012 to protect nesting sites for the federally protected marbled murrelet.
In 2016 the State Land Board – made up of the governor, the state treasurer and the secretary of state – proposed selling the forest and giving the money to schools, but that idea sparked a backlash from environmentalists and recreational users.
Last December, the board asked the OSU College of Forestry to work with a 16-member stakeholder committee to come up with a blueprint for transforming the Elliott into a research forest. The plan is intended to decouple the forest from the Common School Fund while keeping it in public ownership, protecting sensitive species, maintaining recreational access and continuing some level of timber harvest.
The plan was supposed to be finished by the end of this year, but on Tuesday the board heard from college officials and advisory committee members that they needed more time to finish their work.
Anthony Davis, the college’s interim dean, presented the outline of a management plan that would set aside about 30,000 acres on the west side of the Elliott for conservation research, with the remaining 50,000 acres designated for research on different types of active forest management.
He said the research forest could be financially self-sustaining through a mix of logging revenues and the sale of carbon credits.
Speaking for the 16-member Elliott State Research Forest Advisory Committee, Reedsport resident Keith Tymchuk said the group of diverse stakeholders had found common ground on most issues but needed more time to complete its work.
“While our conversations have been productive, we are not finished,” he said.
Tymchuk added that committee members unanimously supported giving OSU more time to complete its plan, saying the university had demonstrated the Elliott’s potential as a research forest but still needs to flesh out the details of its research agenda, governance structure and carbon credit plan.
Although no formal vote was taken, the State Land Board decided by consensus to give OSU and the advisory committee more time to finish fleshing out the plan.
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Gov. Kate Brown said she was initially skeptical about OSU’s draft plan but changed her mind after listening to testimony from members of the advisory committee.
“I am open to continuing this process through next fall,” she said.
State Treasurer Tobias Read said after the meeting that he felt good about the board’s decision.
“We’re moving in the right direction, and I want to give them time to continue doing that,” he said.
One question that still remains to be answered: How to fully compensate the Common School Fund for the loss of timber revenues from the Elliott.
The forest has been appraised at a value of $220.8 million. The state sold $100 million in bonds earlier this year to cover part of that cost, but it’s not yet clear where the rest of the money would come from.
While the State Land Board expressed approval for the work done so far by OSU on the research forest concept, the university came in for withering criticism during an hourlong public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting.
More than 30 people signed up to speak, and many of them had harsh words for the College of Forestry. Much of their ire stemmed from a logging operation on the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest near Corvallis last summer that felled a number of old growth trees, including a Douglas fir believed to be about 420 years old.
“It gets down to a certain amount of trust,” said Doug Pollock, who formed a group called Friends of OSU Old Growth to pressure the college to preserve older trees on its lands.
He cited “decades of mismanagement” of OSU’s existing research forests and urged the board to prioritize conservation and carbon sequestration over timber harvesting on the Elliott.
Davis said afterward that the College of Forestry would keep moving ahead on the project.
“We have a green light to see if we can make it work,” he said.