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Forest Sale, Off the Table

The Elliott State Forest Lives Another Day



The State Land Board decides against selling the Elliott. The next step could mean more protection—and pedagogy—in the forest.

Last week the State Land Board took up the issue of the sale of the Elliott State Forest once again. This has been a "hot topic" of public conversation since the State Land Board decided in 2015 to sell the forest, in order to generate income for Oregon's Common School Fund. The issue erupted again in February when the State Land Board, in a two-to-one vote, decided to go ahead with a proposal for the sale.

The board, however, postponed the decision until May 9, at Gov. Kate Brown's request, to explore potential options for maintaining the Elliott in public ownership while continuing to meet the requirements set forth by the Constitution to maximize revenue for the Common School Fund.

At the May 9 meeting, the State Land Board voted unanimously to terminate the "protocol" that was established back in August of 2015 to pursue private ownership of the Elliott, thus effectively voting not to move forward with the sale proposal. The Board then directed the Department of State Lands to move forward with planning efforts to maintain public ownership of the Elliott.

Prior to, and at the May 9 meeting, each Board member outlined their proposals for exploring continued public ownership of the Elliott. It could be said that each proposal shares one thing in common—avoiding the controversy and chaos of the past several months. In looking at the various proposals, one stands out as an intriguing way to both produce revenue for the Common School Fund and foster stewardship of public lands. State Treasurer Tobias Read was the arbiter of that proposal.

Treasurer Read's proposal would build upon Gov. Brown's proposal of utilizing $100 million in state bonding authority to compensate the Common School Fund for effectively setting aside portions of the Elliott considered high value habitat, and additionally pursuing successful negotiation of a Habitat Conservation Plan with federal agencies to encapsulate potential future uses of the Elliott, both for revenue and non-revenue purposes. The proposal would go further by working with various state agencies and with Oregon State University, including the College of Forestry, to explore the eventual acquisition of the Elliott by Oregon State University, maintaining it in public ownership for a variety of uses and "decoupling" it from the Common School Fund.

In a conversation with Treasurer Read last week, he minced no words expressing his desire to "resolve for good the tension of the legal obligation versus stewardship obligation of the Land Board with respect to the Elliott." His goal is neither to temporarily mollify competing interests, nor push the issue down the road.

It was apparent that he sees the imperative of fulfilling the State's fiduciary duty to the Common School Fund while at the same time recognizing the competing non-economic expectations and requirements placed on the Elliott by the public as well as a host of state and federal Agencies, including recreational access and various conservation measures.

Treasurer Read's proposal to bring another public entity into the mix, namely Oregon State University, is aimed at "decoupling" the Elliott from the Common School Fund by selling it at full market value, and simultaneously creating a multi-use research forest owned and managed by a public entity. He sees the state bonding effort as a "down payment" enabling the development of the necessary components to ultimately perfect the sale. Some see this as the State buying land it already owns. Treasurer Read points to the fact that this is land held in trust by the State, and the reality is that the bonding money would work to assist in the transfer of those lands to another public entity, rather than purchasing land from itself. He emphasized that this bonding would set the State in motion to meet its fiduciary financial obligation to compensate the Common School Fund for the full market value of the Elliott, either through an ultimate sale to Oregon State University or another public entity if that sale doesn't come to fruition.

It's obvious that the story of the Elliott isn't over yet. The Memorandum of Understanding with Oregon State University gives them until Dec. 31, 2023, to exercise the option to purchase the Elliott. This will be dependent upon a multiplicity of factors coming together, not the least of which is the successful negotiation of a Habitat Conservation Plan referenced above. This will be no easy task. As Treasurer Read expressed in our conversation with him, though the HCP as well as other factors could very well "have an impact on various parts of the proposal," he felt that "pursuing the OSU option is the best possibility for a win for all."

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