Three slices of Elliott State Forest, in the Coast Range near Coos Bay, may go up for sale.
But as Gov. John Kitzhaber and the State Land Board prepare Tuesday to authorize accepting bids for the property, they face a big question.
Could they be letting it go for pennies on the dollar?
The three-member board will decide Tuesday whether to sell 2,728 acres of forest whose highest dollar value would have come from logging.
One problem: It’s not just trees for sale. State and volunteer biologists discovered threatened marbled murrelets nesting there during surveys this summer. Timber once worth an estimated $22.1 million dropped to $3.6 million, according to state appraisals. Stands occupied by murrelets, a small seabird, can’t be logged and aren’t worth as much.
While worth less on paper, a state contractor’s appraisal theorized that the reduced value may allow small timber companies to buy the land cheap and log it anyway, skirting the law to reap the original, higher value.
The contractor’s appraisal says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, ignores violations of illegal logging in murrelet habitat.
“Such activity apparently occurs, and Kevin Maurice with USFWS indicates that his agency often does not pursue violators, even when the agency is aware of a violation,” the state contractor wrote.
Maurice, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said his comment was mischaracterized. The contractor “didn’t capture the whole conversation,” he said.
Paul Henson, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon supervisor, said his agency investigates whenever it receives complaints about harm to endangered species, but pursuing violators can be difficult.
“When you don’t know for sure the bird is in that habitat, it’d be difficult to bring a case,” Henson said. “Whether you maybe harmed the animal is not sufficient.”
Jerry Witler, the contract forester who wrote the appraisals for the state, stood by his characterization of Maurice’s comments.
“I thought it was (accurate) or I wouldn’t have put it in the report,” Witler said. Of Maurice’s claim that he was misquoted, Witler said: “I can understand why. It’s an embarrassing thing to say.”
Witler said he didn’t think the parcels would be illegally logged if they are sold. “They’re so high profile,” he said. “Simply the fact that you’re calling me, I can’t imagine that the Fish and Wildlife Service would not prosecute in this case.”
Environmental groups who have protested the potential sale say logging companies would have an unfair advantage bidding against conservation groups for the land if they’re able to pay more and then profit by harvesting illegally.
“The state now has the option to sell it at this cut-rate price to the timber industry, who’ll clearcut it anyway,” said Francis Eatherington, conservation director at Cascadia Wildlands. “It may be legal for the state to do it, but it’d be morally unconscionable. It cheats the Oregon public out of its conservation value.”
The Department of State Lands owns some 700,000 acres statewide, including most of the Elliott State Forest, and uses revenue from mineral and timber leases and sales on that land to fund public education.
But land in the Elliott State Forest will cost the state education fund approximately $3 million to manage this year because environmental lawsuits have curtailed logging there.
“When you have a land asset draining money from the Common School Fund, that’s a concern,” said Julie Curtis, a land department spokeswoman. “It just means the land board is not the right owner of these parcels.”
Curtis said anyone who buys land from the department needs to comply with applicable laws. But she said monitoring compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act isn’t the department’s responsibility.
“I don’t see why that is our issue,” she said.
The State Land Board meets at 10 a.m. Tuesday at 775 Summer St. NE in Salem.
— Rob Davis