OPB on Land Board Decision

The state is moving forward with a plan to put about 2,700 acres of the Elliott State Forest up for auction. Gov. John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown, and Treasurer Ted Wheeler all voted Tuesday to authorize a potential sale.

It’s the latest twist in a long struggle over the management of the Elliott. The State faces a lawsuit over logging habitat of an endangered seabird on the forest, the Marbled murrelet. Amelia Templeton attended the State Land Board meeting and spoke with the governor about the decision to sell the land.

BH: So first, give us a quick sketch of the Elliott State Forest.

AT: The Elliott State Forest is unique. It’s about a 90,000 acre square in the Coastal Range near Coos Bay. It was created in 1930 to consolidate state-owned land that had a mandate to provide income for public schools. Among the state’s three forests, it’s the only one with such a designated role.

Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry

About half of the forest is 100 to 150 years old, and it contains some even older trees, all the way up to 600 years old.

The parcels the land board is considering selling make up about 3 percent, they’re all on the edges of the forest.

BH: So why does Gov. Kitzhaber say he wants to sell these parcels of the Elliot?

AT: Well, two reasons.

The Elliott is losing money for the state. In 2012 it brought in about $6 million from logging. Then a lawsuit over the Marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird, cut logging on the forest by more than half.

This year the Elliott lost the state about 3 million dollars.

And the state constitution says this land must be managed to maximize the benefit to this school fund.

Kitzhaber says he is using the sale of these small parcels to test the water, to find out the value of the Elliott forest as a whole.

Having a good fair market value estimate of what these smaller parcels are worth might help the state broker a deal over the entire Elliott.

I asked the governor why its necessary to sell these parcels to find out how much the land is worth.

AT: Why is it so hard to know the market value of the forest?

“Because we’ve never sold it before. So even if you want to sell it to a conservation buyer, without a competitive bidding process you don’t know what the true market value is,” Kitzhaber said.

AT: And Kitzhaber says that once the state knows the fair market value of these small parcels, that might help it come up with a better plan for how to manage the whole forest.

BH: What do conservation groups make of that argument?

AT: Well, some conservation groups appeared sympathetic, and many urged the governor to consider brokering some kind of deal over the rest of the Elliott that would give it to the state parks department. Another option they support is selling it to some kind of a conservation land trust.

But many are very upset at this plan to sell off these parcels.

Conservation groups surveyed the land this summer and found marbled murrelets, a rare seabird that is considered to be threatened with extinction

And that discovery drove the appraisers to revise the price of the land down from about $22 million to about $3.5 million.

One of the parcels also contains about a mile of coho salmon stream and is, according to the department of forestry, the most productive coho habitat on the Oregon Coast.

So many conservation groups believe it’s bad precedent for the state to sell land that has such high conservation values for potentially a bargain basement price. That’s what Francis Eatherington, with Cascadia Wildland, thinks:

Eatherington said, “For the competitive bid to start at that extremely low price is unconscionable.”

BH: So who’s interested in buying, and what will happen to the land?

AT: Who knows! Environmental groups will be keeping a very close eye on it.

BH: Thanks for talking with us.

-Amelia Templeton, Beth Hyams

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