Many breathed a sigh of relief on May 9th as the State Land Board voted to keep the Elliott State Forest open and accessible to all. While there’s still much work to be done to craft an inclusive solution that preserves this ecologically unique and historically special place that connects us to our past and future – the Land Board has taken a major step in the right direction by reversing their decision to sell the forest.
Located in the Southern Oregon Coast Range, the Elliott State Forest contains within its bounty over 82,000 acres of vital wildlife habitat and some of Oregon’s last remaining coastal old-growth. Approximately half of the forest is over a century old, and provides a home to threatened and endangered species, vital habitat to elk, black bear, northern spotted owls, and marbled murrelets. Among the ancestral homelands for Tribal Nations who have hunted, fished and lived among the region for many generations before the forest came into state ownership, this place has deep meaning – connecting communities to a rich past and vital future. It also contains some of the strongest wild salmon and steelhead runs left on the Oregon Coast, with biologists estimating that 22% of all wild Oregon coastal coho salmon originate in the Elliott.
The State Land Board – consisting of Governor Kate Brown, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and state Treasurer Tobias Read – had proposed the sale of the Elliott’s obligation to the state’s Common School Fund for $221 million. But the Land Board rejected that approach on May 9 and voted to keep the Elliott in state ownership. We are appreciate the work that Governor Brown and Treasurer Read did, but more work lies ahead to come up with a solution that engages all stakeholders equally in finding a solution for the Elliott.
The biggest unanswered question is whether the Oregon Legislature can come up with the $100 million in bonding proposed by Governor Brown to buy out the most sensitive areas of the forest from the Common School Fund obligation. In addition to using that money to end the state’s obligation to tear down forests to fund our schools, the Governor’s plan would establish a “Habitat Conservation Plan” for much of the rest of the land. This would allow some logging to occur while also protecting endangered and threatened species such as spotted owls and murrelets. Treasurer Read presented a complementary plan that would allow Oregon State University an option to buy the Elliott for the $121 million remaining if the $100 million in bonding can be found.
In addition to working diligently in the Legislature to try to assure that the securing adequate bonding money, the Oregon Chapter will also be working to pass Senate Bill 847, which would establish a Trust Land Transfer program. Such a program could help provide part of a solution to the Elliott by providing a mechanism by which money could be appropriated over time to purchase encumbered lands.
We are hopeful that all of these answers can be found and that we can indeed come up with a solution that results in a forest that is preserved for all of us – the hikers, hunters, anglers, bird watchers, and Oregon’s diverse communities. And importantly, the Sierra Club believes that the State must engage Tribes as sovereign equals in crafting this solution – recognizing and addressing the past seizure of their ancestral lands.
No one believes that any of this will be easy, but we now at least have reason to believe that we are headed in the right direction and for that we should all be thankful.