by Rhett Lawrence, Conservation Director
After many years of doubts about the future of the Elliott State Forest, we may finally have turned the corner on saving it, thanks to Governor Kate Brown, Treasurer Tobias Read, and the Oregon Legislature. As you will read below, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Governor, the Treasurer, and the legislative leaders who came together to find a solution for the forest.
Like many of you, I breathed a sigh of relief in May when the State Land Board voted to keep the Elliott open and accessible to all. But even after that, we knew there was one further huge hurdle that we needed to get over in the 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature. In order to ensure a solution for the Elliott that works for everyone, we needed for legislators to approve the $100 million in bonding proposed by Governor Brown to withdraw the most sensitive areas of the Elliott from its obligations to generate revenue for the Common School Fund. And in an era of constrained budgets all around, we knew that getting $100 million was a tall order indeed. But wonder of wonders – the Legislature approved a bonding package in the waning days of the 2017 session that did just that!
Appropriating that $100 million was a huge accomplishment, no doubt, but in many ways, it is just a down payment on the future of the Elliott. Under Governor Brown’s plan, the bonding money will be used first to end the state’s obligation to excessively log the most sensitive areas of the forest to fund our schools. Next, the Governor’s plan would establish a “Habitat Conservation Plan” for much of the rest of the land, developed in partnership with tribal governments, conservation groups, and other community members. This would allow some logging to occur, while also protecting endangered and threatened species such as spotted owls and murrelets.
Treasurer Tobias Read has also presented a complementary plan that allows Oregon State University an option to buy the Elliott for the $121 million remaining after the $100 million bonding down payment in order to manage it as an experimental forest. And whether we now move forward with the Governor’s plan or the Treasurer’s plan – or some combination of the two – we at the Sierra Club also welcome the possibility for some of the lands to be returned to the Tribes who occupied the area long before it came into state or federal ownership. But by getting the bonding approved, we have taken a big first step toward preserving and protecting the Elliott for all of us – the hikers, hunters, anglers, bird watchers, and Oregon’s diverse communities.
In addition to finding the bonding money for the Elliott, the Oregon Legislature also passed Senate Bill 847, establishing a Trust Land Transfer program in Oregon for the first time. This program could help prevent future Elliott-like situations by providing a mechanism by which money could be appropriated over time to purchase encumbered lands. Washington State has had a similar program since 1989 and has moved nearly 120,000 acres of encumbered trust lands out of the trust to benefit school kids and the environment. We are excited by the passage of SB 847 in Oregon and we hope it can help us replicate many of the successes of the Washington program.
So, obviously, much more work remains to be done on the Elliott. But we should be very happy with the successes we did achieve in the 2017 legislative session – and in the years leading up to it, where we were always teetering on the edge of having the forest sold off to the highest bidder. We are thrilled that we have taken the first steps toward a solution that results in a forest that is preserved for all of us – the hikers, hunters, anglers, bird watchers, and others. And importantly, the Sierra Club is hopeful that Tribes can be a part of that solution and that past injustices regarding the seizure of their ancestral lands can be remedied in part.
No one believes that any of the rest 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.