Politicians Vote to Axe Oregon’s Elliott State Forest

Elliot State Forest
Fir trees of the Elliot State Forest.Oregon Department of Forestry

The state of Oregon this week took a big step toward selling off 82,500-acres of public hunting and fishing territory near Coos Bay.

The Elliott State Forest has been a source of controversy in recent years. Hunters and anglers love it because it includes spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead, as well as habitat for blacktail deer, Roosevelt elk, and black bear in the lush Coast Range.

However, Elliott State Forest faces a quandary. State law requires the land turn a profit and that money go to the school trust fund. Traditionally, that has meant logging. The forest has been heavily logged, but also includes rare habitats like streamside zones and old growth forest.

As that logging has become more controversial, it has also become less profitable. So the State Land Board has been under increased pressure just to sell the place.

The land board is made up of three elected officials – the Governor, the Secretary of State and the Treasurer. This week, two of those people, the Secretary of State and the Treasurer, voted to continue the process to sell the land to a consortium of a local timber company and Indian tribes. The state is seeking $221 million for the land, a well as assurances half of the land would remain open to the public.

As part of that proposal, the Board also included a caveat that the state might raise more money and buy some of the land back “for conservation purposes.” Another provision stipulates that logging must follow the Forest Stewardship Council standards.

Gov. Kate Brown dissented. "It is clear to me that it is in the best interest of Oregonians to ensure public ownership of the Elliott State Forest," Brown told the assembled crowd in Salem, according to the Portland Oregonian. "The importance of state-owned lands has increased as the future of federal public lands has come into question."

Brown is referring to moves in Congress like HR 621, which would have sold federal public land like national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas. Indeed, Elliott State Forest has become Exhibit A of how states would be forced to sell off public land, if federal land were transferred to state ownership.

The deal is not final yet and the Land Board will meet again in April. Brown is still pushing for an option to keep Elliott Forest in state ownership.

The move has caught the attention of hunters and anglers in Oregon and beyond. It illustrates how tenuous state ownership of land is: in Oregon it takes only two politicians in the right positions to liquidate land that had been public since 1930.

"The privatization of Oregon's oldest state forest would be a tremendous loss for all Oregonians,” said Ian Isaacson, of the Oregon Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers in Bend. “The fragility of our public lands and waters is not that of a fictitious tale. It is reality, and it is why sportsmen and women must continue to work together to fight for the wild places we love."

For a sportsmen's perspective, check Randy Newberg's YouTube video about the Elliott Forest.

Correction: This story initially stated that the Lt. Governor voted to continue the process to sell the Elliott State Forest. Oregon does not have a Lt. Governor. In Oregon, the Governor is succeeded by the Secretary of State.