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Conservation groups lobby to nix sale of Elliott State Forest

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Environmentalists hope to forestall the sale, but state continues to negotiate a sales agreement for the forest

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Conservation groups are lobbying state Treasurer Tobias Read to reverse his State Land Board vote to sell the Elliot State Forest to a private partnership. Gov. Kate Brown, also a member of the board, wants to keep the forest in public hands.SALEM — Opponents of the planned sale of an 82,500-acre swath of the Elliot State Forest to a private partnership are lobbying members of the State Land Board to change their vote and keep the forest in public hands.

Meanwhile, officials at the Department of State Lands are both negotiating a sales agreement for the forest and, at the direction of the governor, researching a public ownership option.

Revenues from logging on the forest is meant to benefit the Common School Fund. But in recent years, the forest has operated at a loss.

In 2015, the land board agreed to a detailed protocol for finding a buyer and eventually selling the forest.

Only one entity — Lone Rock Resources, a Roseburg timber firm, and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians — submitted a bid to buy the forest for its assessed value, $220.8 million. Under the proposal, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians would hold a conservation easement on the property.

Environmental groups are lobbying the Legislature and members of the board — Gov. Kate Brown, Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson — in earnest to change course and find a means of public ownership.

Brown, the only current member of the land board who was also on the board at the time of the initial vote to sell the forest, last month directed the Department of State Lands to come up with an alternative public ownership proposal.

Read, a Democrat, and Richardson, a Republican, voted Feb. 14 to go forward with the sale.

The governor can't veto the decision if Read and Richardson decide to continue with the sale agreement at the board's next meeting in April, according to the Department of State Lands.

It's not clear exactly what the public ownership proposal Brown has proposed will look like, although the governor has suggested using up to $100 million in state bonding capacity to buy a portion of the forest and negotiating with the federal services to come up with a habitat conservation plan that permits "sustainable timber harvest."

Environmental groups say they have been lobbying Richardson and Read to change their votes.

Read has expressed concerns about diverging from the sale plan because of the state's fiduciary obligation to the Common School Fund. Conservation groups believe there is a way to meet those obligations while protecting critical habitat and maintaining public access, although they remain largely mum about the details.

Environmental groups, including Cascadia Wildlands and Portland Audobon, held an official lobby day at the state capitol last week, meeting with Read and state legislators. They've encouraged their members to call legislators and the land board to push for the public ownership option.

The Elliott Forest, environmental groups say, has taken on even greater urgency in light of the Trump administration's stance on environmental policy.

Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, said Wednesday that selling the Elliott to Lone Rock also presents a risk to the state's reputation as an outdoors mecca — and particularly, tourism officials' interest in drawing the Outdoor Retailer conference to Oregon.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Audobon, said he and two other people met with Read Thursday.

Sallinger, reluctant to provide details about potential proposals Thursday afternoon, said he felt the treasurer was "receptive" to the ideas presented.

"What I can say based on today is that I feel we're making headway," Sallinger said in a phone interview.

Read's office said the meeting Thursday was "productive."

Sallinger also said he felt that members of the Legislature his group met with were receptive to public ownership.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has indicated his support for keeping the forest public, and suggested in public testimony at last month's land board meeting that revenue bonds — which require repayment by an income-generating activity on the land such as logging — could be an option.

The board will convene again April 11. The Department of State Lands, for its part, also says it's not yet clear what will be discussed in terms of the public option.

"The DSL director will be providing an informational update at a minimum, consistent with the Governor's direction at the February meeting to look into public ownership options," spokeswoman Julie Curtis wrote in an email.