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Elliott State Forest shows the difficult balance between profit and conservation.
Anna V. Smith
March 23, 2017
Last month on Valentine’s Day, the members of Oregon’s State Land Board sat side-by-side at a table under fluorescent lights, facing an expectant crowd. They were about to take a consequential vote on whether to sell 82,500 acres of public land. It was the culmination of a decades-long fight over how the state should manage the Elliott State Forest’s lush, emerald stands of old fir and western hemlock, and more specifically, how it should balance its mandate to make money off the forest with conservation goals, like protecting threatened birds and salmon.
The three members of the land board represented three schools of thought on the matter: Gov. Kate Brown wanted the state to keep the forest in public hands. Secretary of State Dennis Richardson thought the state should sell because it needed the money. That left state Treasurer Tobias Read with the tie-breaking vote. A conservation-friendly Democrat, Read felt stuck.
The Elliott State Forest is a special type of state land, which is managed to earn money for public schools. The land board has an obligation under the state constitution to make sure the forest turns a profit — and the Elliott was losing money. And so on Feb. 14, Read cast a loveless vote to move forward with selling the Elliott. “I certainly care about this place,” Read says of Oregon’s oldest state forest. “But I also take seriously the responsibility that we have to the Common School Fund. That’s the oath I took.”
Oregon’s once-booming timber economies have flagged since the 1990s because of housing busts and weak export markets, as well as a shift in how Oregonians value forests. The public at large no longer sees its forests merely as timber farms, but as ecological havens for imperiled wildlife and as places to recreate. The Elliott, for instance, is laced with cold rivers filled with coho salmon, and occupied by elusive marbled murrelets, which nest in its old-growth trees. It’s also a place where people hike, fish and hunt. The loss of public access if the forest is sold has been raised by groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who cast the fight over the future of the Elliott as part of a larger struggle over public lands...
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