Elliott forest may get a needed reprieve

from The Oregonian

The newfound willingness by Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read to help find a way to keep the Elliott State Forest in public ownership carries enormous promise for present and future generations of Oregonians.

What was to have been a sell-off of the forest to raise cash for Oregon schools now becomes a money puzzle for the Legislature, however, soon to debate buying most or all of the forest and ensuring payment to the state's Common School Fund for the loss of Elliott's dwindling logging revenues.

The use of the Elliott as an engine of the Common School Fund was smart many decades ago, when Oregon had a lot of trees to cut and sell. But things have changed dramatically. Oregon has expanded in population and development, wildlife species and waterway protections have been mandated, and logging has declined sharply. Recreational use of Oregon's forests, meanwhile, has surged, and newfound environmental values, among them the natural storage of carbon in a time of climate change, have emerged.

Along the way the Elliott's logging revenues nose-dived, sinking too low in recent years to meet constitutional obligations. The overseeing State Land Board — Read is one of three members to decide the Elliott's fate — saw little option but to sell it off and said as much late last year, with Gov. Kate Brown the lone holdout. Selling the Elliott would place more than $200 million in proceeds in an investment account, generating stable earnings for schools.

Only months ago, Read said he saw no other option for the Elliott than to sell it, albeit with several conditions to protect the public's interests. Last week, however, following his announcement that he'd returned to an old stance, he explained that he senses "momentum in the Legislature" to possibly create a land-transfer mechanism, in which the state would purchase some or all of the Elliott and assign its management to another state agency, thereby keeping valuable forestland in state ownership.

Good. In joining Brown as one of two keep-the-Elliott votes on the land board, he makes probable the best of all outcomes: The Elliott State Forest will remain in public hands. In reversing himself, he not only throws the matter back to the Legislature but re-enters the graces of Oregon's conservation community, which mobilized mightily for the Elliott. Separately but pertinently, the election of Donald Trump as president, and the fear he'd broadly diminish protections of public lands, only deepened the fight to protect the Elliott.

The deal's not done. That will take action by the Legislature, now considering Senate Bill 847, wisely sponsored by Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, a neighbor to the Elliott. Roblan's bill maps the kind of land transfer that could allow the protection of the Elliott and other state lands, provided the Legislature finds the bonding to pay for it.

Lawmakers should look ahead, rather than behind, as the value of the Elliott is gauged for present and future generations. The forest is just too valuable not to keep.

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