Treasurer wants OSU to buy the Elliott State Forest
SALEM — State Treasurer Tobias Read envisions turning an 82,500-acre swath of coastal forest into a state research forest owned by Oregon State University.
That plan is the latest in a series of proposals from members of the State Land Board, each of whom separately spoke out on their ambitions for the Elliott State Forest on Thursday.
Those statements came a few days after lawyers for the Oregon School Boards Association sent a letter to the board saying that school districts may sue unless the board agrees to sell the forest — either to a partnership between Lone Rock Resources and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, or to a public entity, for its assessed value of $220.8 million.
The board is comprised of Read, Gov. Kate Brown and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. It is responsible for overseeing the forest, which is a trust land required to generate revenues for public education.
The board has been considering selling the Elliott for nearly two years, in the wake of waning timber harvests due to legal limitations on logging.
After considerable public opposition, Brown and Read have expressed their intentions to scrap an earlier plan to sell the land to Lone Rock and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.
Brown has said she wants to use $100 million of the state's bonding capacity to buy particularly valuable and sensitive areas of the forest and, for the rest of the land, negotiate a habitat conservation plan with federal agencies "to allow for sustainable timber harvest" on the land while protecting certain species.
The $100 million in bonds would be paid off by the state's general fund. To make up the remaining $120.8 million of the land's assessed value, there would be timber harvests on the land under the habitat conservation plan.
It appears that negotiating a habitat conservation plan on the rest of the forest has support from federal agencies, according to letters from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, both of which were released by the Governor's Office Thursday.
Read essentially proposes an elaboration on the governor's plan that frames the $100 million in bonds as a "down payment," to be followed by OSU purchasing the entire forest for the remaining $120.8 million of its assessed value.
If OSU decided not to buy the forest, the board would transfer the forest to "another public entity willing to come up with the funding, or it could convert the $100 million into a conservation easement owned by the state," the treasurer's memo states. If OSU decides not to buy the forest by the end of 2023, Read proposes, an advisory board would recommend other public entities that could purchase the Elliott.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who has expressed support for the initial plan to sell the forest to Lone Rock and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, said in a press release Thursday that he would "earnestly consider" both proposals for the forest.
But Richardson also laid out his "eight principles" for agreeing to a plan on the forest, which range from clearly meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act to preserving the state's reputation and ability to negotiate agreements with businesses and nonprofits in good faith in the future.
While Brown's plan would partially alleviate the burden the forest has as far as its obligation to the Common School Fund, Read's would entirely "decouple," or separate, the forest from its duty to produce revenues via timber sales for the fund.
Under Read's proposal, the Department of State Lands would develop a management plan to preserve the forest's "underlying value for the future" as well as a longer-term plan for collaborative management by the Oregon Department of Forestry and the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. That collaboration would align with the federal habitat conservation plan being pursued by the governor, according to a memo released by Read's office Thursday.
Read said his plan would work in concert with the governor's.
"I've been focused on the structural pieces," Read said Thursday, meaning he sought a way to relieve the forest of its obligations to the Common School Fund. "I think the combination of what the governor has been talking about and what we've been talking about can provide a viable path for us."
Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said his organization was willing to consider alternatives, but focused on making sure the board met its fiduciary duty to the Common School Fund.
"Our focus is on ensuring that the Elliott doesn't lose value as an asset of the Common School Fund," Green said. "If the parties involved can ensure that, we are willing to consider options, but Oregon's students are relying on the members of the State Land Board to fulfill their fiduciary obligation.
The Land Board convenes May 9 in Salem.