A specter haunts the forest

The State Land Board — made up of three statewide elected officials, including the governor — may be powerless to sell much of the timber growing in the Elliott State Forest.

That shows the power conservation groups have when they invoke the specter of the marbled murrelet.

Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Kate Brown join Gov. John Kitzhaber on the State Land Board.

Kitzhaber has been widely praised as an effective leader in his second go as governor, with a particular concern for education.

Still, he hasn't been able to increase logging in the 93,000-acre forest in Douglas and Coos counties to support the Common School Fund.

Don't blame Kitzhaber, or Wheeler or Brown — all Democrats. They embraced a plan to increase timber harvests from 25 million board feet a year to 40 million board feet.

Conservation groups scuttled the plan by claiming stepped-up logging would endanger the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The groups filed a federal lawsuit, but just the threat was enough for the Oregon Department of Forestry to cancel timber sales, driving harvest levels down to about 15 million board feet.

The state has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it's already caved into the conservation groups' demands.

So the lawsuit has effectively repealed the plan to increase logging, and then some. The lawsuit took decision-making out of the hands of three elected officials, accountable to the state's voters.

Blocked from selling timber, the State Land Board devised a tentative plan to sell 2,714 acres to raise money for public schools.

Again, the specter of the marbled murrelet has struck.

A conservation group has reported seeing a marbled murrelet on the land. That could complicate plans to sell the land, to say the least.

Assuming the marbled murrelet didn't stop or delay logging, the timber would be worth about $22 million, according to an appraisal prepared for the state.

That's a big assumption. More likely, a timber company would have to wait at least two years while the land is watched for marbled murrelets.

Bidders would be taking a chance they could log someday. Under that scenario, the forester that appraised the timber speculated the timber would fetch a far lower bid, less than $4 million.

Conservation groups can't blame greedy timber companies lusting after "cheap" public logs for the policy to increase timber harvests on the Elliott. School funding motivates the State Land Board.

The conservation groups also can't with a straight face claim the timber harvests would be broadly unpopular with Oregonians. The State Land Board knows something about representing constituents.

Combined, Kitzhaber, Wheeler and Brown have won six statewide elections. Still, they are no match for the specter of the marbled murrelet.

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