A threatened sea bird that nests in coastal forests could impact funding for schools across the state.
Environmental activists are protesting against the proposed sale or exchange of three parcels in the Elliott State Forest, which they say are prime nesting grounds for the marbled murrelet. Three environmental groups in May 2012 filed a lawsuit that said logging in the forest would threaten the bird.
The lawsuit largely tied up logging in the forest, which state officials had originally estimated would net $25.2 million for the state’s Common School Fund over the next two years. Now, officials say the sale of the three parcels, if completed, would fetch enough to manage the forest in the current biennium without raising any money for the school fund.
“It just means the Legislature has to draw more on the general fund because it doesn’t have as much Common School Fund money to use,” said Jim Paul, assistant director of the Department of State Lands for the land management division.
Interest earned from the fund goes to the state’s K-12 school districts through the Oregon Department of Education. Last year, the fund paid about $48 million to Oregon schools. The $4.1 million that Portland Public Schools received from the fund last year paid for the equivalent of 48 teachers, according to a state fact sheet.
State officials originally planned to harvest 40 million board feet in Elliott State Forest in the next two years, Paul said. The lawsuit forced officials to revise their projections to 15 million board feet, estimated to fetch $8 million this biennium to cover forest management costs.
The Department of Forestry already laid off seven full-time employees in the Coos Bay office who work on timber sales as part of budget cuts, Paul said.
The three parcels proposed for sale amount to 2,714 acres in Coos and Douglas counties and are not areas included in the lawsuit from environmentalists, said Julie Curtis, spokeswoman for the Department of State Lands. The department is accepting public comments on the proposed sale until 5 p.m. Sept. 3. (Update: The public comment period has been extended until Nov. 11, according to the department spokeswoman.)
The State Land Board is scheduled to meet Dec. 10 to consider final approval of a land sale. Gov. John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler comprise the State Land Board.
The state owns about 700,000 acres of land, from which mineral and timber proceeds help pay for schools.
Environmental activists fear the three parcels in Elliott State Forest will be sold to a logging company.
Activists affiliated with Cascadia Forest Defenders and Cascadia Earth First! staged road blockades, tree sits and protests at Elliott State Forest in recent years and at the Oregon State Capitol in May and June 2012, which led to arrests. The groups oppose an October 2011 decision to increase logging in the forest.
“In a time when the State Land Board should be taking responsibility for the mismanagement of the Elliott State Forest, they are going over the heads of the public and the courts and finding ways to manage our public lands for profit instead of conservation,” Erin Grady, a Cascadia Forest Defenders member, said in a press release.
The Elliott protests in recent years spurred the Oregon Legislature this spring to pass a law allowing forest contractors to sue environmental activists. A companion bill that would’ve created the crime of interference with state forestland management passed the House but died in the Senate.
If state succeeds in selling the three proposed parcels, officials would consider selling more, said Paul, of State Lands.
“If the forestlands look like it’s no longer going to be a revenue-generating land type, we’re looking at possibly divesting in those lands,” he said. “Since these are the first parcels, I would still call this a due-diligence phase. The potential is there for us to continue down this path and look at the sale of additional forestlands in the Elliott.”
— Yuxing Zheng