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Land Board rejects sale, keeps Elliott State Forest in public hands

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Brown, Richardson and Read reject $220.8 million offer to purchase the 82,500-acre swath of coastal property

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EO MEDIA GROUPSALEM — The proposed sale of an expanse of state forest near the Southern Oregon Coast was halted unanimously Tuesday by the State Land Board.

With the May 9 decision, the governor, secretary of state and treasurer rejected a planned partnership between a Native American tribe and a Roseburg timber company to purchase the Elliott State Forest in Coos and Douglas counties for $220.8 million.

That proposal had elicited significant opposition from environmental groups, and in the process raised questions about the state's stewardship of public lands. The offer from Lone Rock Resources and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians was rejected Tuesday, May 9, in favor of continued public ownership, though the details of how that will work have yet to be determined.

The board initially considered selling the 82,500-acre swath of coastal forest in 2015 because timber harvests that provided money for education were declining after environmental lawsuits challenged them.

The Elliott State Forest is a state trust land and constitutionally required to provide revenue for the Common School Fund, which helps pay for public education. Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and Treasurer Tobias Read, each of whom took office this year, initially supported moving forward with the sale at their first land board meeting in February. That changed Tuesday when they both opposed it.

The governor, secretary of state and treasurer are not out of the woods yet: They now need to find a way to finance public ownership of the forest and generate money for education.

Gov. Kate Brown has proposed using $100 million in bonds to buy a portion of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the forest — some estimates say that amount could be used to pay for about half of the total acreage — and negotiating what's called a habitat conservation plan with federal land management agencies for the remainder.

'A huge win'

Last week, Read announced a proposal that would build on the governor's planned use of bond funds and have Oregon State University pay the remaining $120.8 million of the forest's assessed value to turn the land into a research forest.

The idea is that foresters at OSU would study the relationship between active forest management and conserving endangered species.

Brown directed the department to consider Read's research forest proposal, as well as work with tribal governments to "explore ownership or additional forest management opportunities."

Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, called the decision "a huge win for all and a reaffirmation of Oregon values."

Although environmental groups, along with Brown and Read, struck a victorious tone Tuesday, the Oregon School Boards Association said last week that its member school districts may sue the board unless the full assessed value of the forest is paid to the Common School Fund.

Jim Green, executive director of the association, said after the meeting that his group would "continue to monitor these proposals very closely."

"Any solution has to provide full value to the Common School Fund," Green said. "That is what we owe our kids."

Richardson suggested a swapping the Elliott State Forest for land owned by federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

During Tuesday's meeting, Richardson indicated his displeasure with the fact that the state was backing away from the sale proposal, and said he thought it was likely that the state would face litigation, but said it was "obvious" that the sale was not going to proceed.

The Department of State Lands had begun talks with Lone Rock Resources and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, which had proposed forming a corporation to buy the forest. Now that the board has ended the sale, those negotiations will cease.