Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 10.28.2010


Make Way for Wildlife
The Elliott State Forest and Oregon’s ecosystems
By Camilla Mortensen

Clearcuts loom in the Elliott. Photos by Chuck Griffin

It was too late in the day to see any flying potatoes, but still early enough for a logging operation to be in full swing. We watched as the log loader crept up the side of the mountain in Oregon’s Coast Range, moving smaller trees and preparing the site for logging to come.

Francis Eatherington, conservation director for Cascadia Wildlands, explained that this portion of the Elliott State Forest is a buffer zone for marbled murrelets. The potato-shaped birds fly in from the ocean at speeds up to 90 miles per hour and fly as much as 30 miles inland, Eatherington said. A several hundred foot section of the forest is closed to logging operations during the hours the murrelets are flying back to their nests with their catch of the day to feed their young.

Danny Farmer, the young logger operating the log loader, stepped out of the machine to say hello and make sure the small group comprised of a reporter, photographer and several conservationists was well clear of the machine. Farmer said he leaves his home on the coast before dawn to drive to work in the Elliott, but he’s careful not to begin until the regulated two hours after sun up that buffers the forest where murrelet nests have been found. “I have to keep an eye on that,” he said, “because the time changes.” 

Farmer — a fourth generation logger whose logging machine bears his nickname, “Log Farmer,” on the side — has never actually seen one of the birds the buffer is supposed to protect. Longtime conservationist Eatherington jumped at the chance to educate him about the threatened sea birds, which are members of the auk family. Marbled murrelets nest in old growth trees, Eatherington said. They need big branches to land on because they have webbed feet. The chunky, almost neckless little birds don’t just look like small potatoes with wings and beaks, they and other federally listed species that live in the Elliott’s disappearing trees are political hot potatoes, especially now in an election that will replace two of the three politicians that make up the State Land Board controlling the fate of the Elliott. 

Former governor and current candidate John Kitzhaber once called management of the Elliott a “creative way to enable harvesting of timber while assuring that fish and wildlife habitats are protected.” Conservationists worry that Kitzhaber’s opponent Chris Dudley would be more concerned with cutting timber than saving flying potatoes. 

The Elliott State Forest epitomizes much of what’s going on with Oregon’s logging industry today, and is indicative of this state’s splintered landscape. Some want to log the forest; some want to save it; and everyone wants to figure out the best way to use it. Should the Elliott become a tree plantation that raises revenue for schools, or should some of the last remaining mature coastal forest and old growth be left to stand for future generations? Oregon’s wildlife from salmon to deer face a landscape divided by dams, cities, highways, sprawl and climate change. Could the Elliott’s value lie in the connection it provides between other wild areas like the nearby proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness? 

Why did the spotted owl cross the road?

Oregon is a fragmented landscape. Not only is it Bureau of Land Management land, which makes up much of western Oregon’s public lands, in a checkerboard with private lands along national forests; but these wild areas are separated by swaths of suburbs and severed by highways. Look at a map of Oregon. Look at all the green that shows our forestlands. Then look and see how that green is broken up by roads, houses and even farmland.

Efforts to preserve areas like the Devil’s Staircase are aimed at saving, or trying to save, some of the last remaining wild places in Oregon. Sen. Ron Wyden along with Sen. Jeff Merkley sponsored the Devil’s Staircase proposal in the U.S. Senate and Peter DeFazio sponsored it in the House. Wyden staffer Tom Towslee says Wyden hopes the Devil’s legislation will pass as part of a larger public lands package. 

But some say if those worthy efforts go through, there’s still the danger wilderness areas and parks could become genetic islands, trapping plants and wildlife in place, and not letting them move and migrate naturally — or more importantly, not letting them escape the effects of climate change. Nearby forests like the Elliott and even the industrial tree farms that are nearby are not “wild” strictly speaking but if managed correctly could still provide needed habitat key to preserving what tree huggers and biologists like to call ecosystem diversity. 

BP’s oil spill gave us images of pelicans and turtles soaked in oil, and BP CEO Tony “I want my life back” Hayward a focus to hate on, but climate change is a more amorphous foe, as is our own human sprawl and the spurs to that sprawl — things like a timber-based economy. But it’s these very things that create danger for creatures like the tiny murrelet, Coho salmon and even common species like deer and elk. Wild things need habitat. They need to move. While roadkill might be an excellent source of protein for some, it can also cause fatal accidents for humans and animals alike.

“The good news is we’re doing a lot on corridors. The bad news is we’re not doing much in Oregon,” says Greg Costello, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center. WELC has been working with the Western Governors Association on improving wildlife corridors and connectivity in the West. Collisions of cars and animals have led biologists to dub highways “Berlin walls for wildlife,” according to WELC. 

States like Washington have begun to put wildlife overpasses into place, which allows animals to cross freeways and major roads safely. In Oregon, the Department of Transportation and Department of Fish and Wildlife have mapped wildlife linkages and hotspots of car-versus-animal collisions on state highways and made the information available online in a GIS database. 

WELC is participating in successful connectivity projects, such as the “Wildlife Crossing Zones” legislation in Colorado, and groups of private landowners are collaborating to create wildlife corridors in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. Costello says, however, that  “there’s clearly a lot of work to be done in Oregon.”

Part of the problem, Costello says, is that for a long time “groups didn’t want to talk about climate change adaptation. They didn’t want to confront the argument that we can adapt to climate change.”

 “We’re not getting the job done on large landscape connectivity in the Northwest,” Costello says.

Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands says the Elliott could provide part of that needed connectivity. He says the forest is a critical wildlife habitat link from the Devil’s Staircase and northwest Oregon south to the Klamath-Siskiyou eco-region and the southern Oregon Cascades as part of a larger Coast Range corridor.

Getting to the other side

David Mildrexler of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council is one of few conservationists in Oregon that has been getting a jump on wildlife connectivity. “It’s not just animals, plants also require a well-connected natural landscape,” Mildrexler says.

In the Hells Canyon area of eastern Oregon, he  points out, “our organization has had this history of connectivity and always been aware of it because where we are geographically located.”

 “We call it the lynchpin ecosystem, the Wallowa-Hells Canyon ecosystem,” Mildrexler says, adding that “it’s holding together the Northern Rockies ecosystem which is the most connected wild intact ecosystem in the lower 48, then to the Blue Mountains, which connects all the way to the Cascades.”

It’s connected landscapes like this that allow animals to migrate and a native wolf population to resume residence. Oregon’s wolf plan calls for the endangered predators to journey across the Cascades to western Oregon.

“If you make a Devil’s Staircase Wilderness area, you’ve established a core habitat area where species can have habitat security, safe from logging and motorized vehicles,” Mildrexler says. 

Things are starting to move in Oregon, Holly Michael of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says. The agency recently hired a habitat connectivity biologist and the Oregon Conservation Strategy identifies “Barriers to Fish and Wildlife Passage” as one of the key conservation issues for Oregon

One corridor to think about, Mildrexler says, is riparian areas — rivers and streams. Rivers provide habitat for the endangered Coho salmon and other fish that make the Elliott and Devil’s Staircase areas their homes. But a river needs nearby shrubs and trees to provide shade and make the water hospitable for the fish. Joe Moll, executive director of McKenzie River Trust, a Eugene-based group that uses conservation easements, trusts and purchases and donations of land to preserve riparian areas, says that “when you look at it from a fish’s perspective, the river is the corridor of course, but the salmon are looking for cold water pockets.”

According to Moll, some species like wolves deal with differing landscapes better than others. The salmon, Moll says, need cold water refugia spaced not too far apart in order to journey from the ocean to their spawning streams in Oregon’s forests. So rivers need connectivity too. Laughlin says that while on hikes near the Millicoma River in the Elliott, which flows near proposed timber sales, “I’ve watched the wild salmon swim up it.”

Moll, whose group deals often with land that is privately owned or close to developed areas, says “Let’s embrace the working landscape,” asking, “What can we bring to the table that is inventive?”

“The question it begs is whether something that is a buffer zone now, in the future, could become better habitat,” Moll says.

The Elliott is a case in point. More than half of the Elliott’s 90,000 plus acres have never been logged. It is made up of forests that grew back from a settler’s fire in 1868. If logging on the Elliott was restricted to thinning the already logged portions of the forest and mature stands were left intact, then could the forest provide some of the connectivity Oregon needs?

“There’s a lot of board feet that needs to be thinned,” says Eatherington. “We would support that.” She asks of the newer timber sales, like the Two Fish sale in the murrelet buffer, “Why create more managed plantations if they can’t support the ones they have now?”

Clearcuts for kids or?

The Elliott State Forest is part of the public lands designated for Oregon’s Common School Fund. When Oregon became a state, the federal government designated about 6 percent of state’s land to support K-12 public schools. Profits from mineral, timber, grazing and other resources go to fund schools, according to the state constitution. The Elliott State Forest is currently managed and logged by the Oregon Department of Forestry. The State Land Board, consisting of the governor, treasurer and secretary of state, has jurisdiction over the Common School Fund lands

A report by economist Eric Fruits presented to the State Land Board in February said, “Department of State Lands management of the Elliott State Forest yields returns of less than 1 percent.” Fruits called this a “meager return,” which he wrote “could raise questions about whether the state is neglecting its fiduciary duty to Oregon schools.”

“Liquidate ancient rainforests to pay for government overhead and a tiny fraction of the school budget?” Eatherington asks. “It doesn’t add up.  Oregon deserves better,” she says of the little funding the logging generates. 

The board then looked into selling the Elliott, which Julie Curtis, communications manager for the Department of State Land (DSL), says is currently off the table because the department’s 2006-2016 Asset Management Plan directs it to retain the forest in a core of permanent land ownership.

Currently the forest is being logged under a 1995 Habitat Conservation Plan. An HCP is done to “minimize and mitigate” how many threatened and endangered species will be killed and how much of their habitat will be damaged. In other words, under an HCP, threatened and endangered species can be “taken” (killed) but there’s a limit on how many, and you have to have a permit to do it.

DSL’s Curtis says the 1995 HCP included a 60-year Incidental Take Permit for the northern spotted owl as well as a six-year permit for “taking” marbled murrelets. The murrelet agreement expired in October 2001, and that expiration is the primary motivation for revising the HCP, she says.

The 1995 plan has been the subject of a lawsuit by conservation groups, including Cascadia Wildlands, which alleges the HCP does not take into consideration new information showing the northern spotted owl is facing increased threats. As it turns out, wildlife corridors can work for invasive, as well as native, species. Barred owls, which both out compete and sometimes breed with spotted owls, have moved into Oregon’s forests. That’s one of the things the 1995 plan didn’t take into account.

A 2004 attempt at a revised HCP faced criticism from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for fish buffers that are too small and would not protect threatened salmon from the effects of logging. 

Curtis says that since 2000 a group of foresters and scientists has provided guidance on updating the 1995 HCP.  After a decade of planning, the team has been unable to reach agreement with NMFS on protecting the threatened salmon.

There is a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for approval of a revised HCP that is acceptable to the Department of State Lands, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and NMFS. If that deadline isn’t met, the HCP will be dropped and a “take avoidance strategy” will be implemented.

Currently Oregon’s Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team (IMST), which advises the State of Oregon on matters of science related to the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, is looking at the draft environmental impact analysis to provide an independent scientific review. 

Interestingly enough, IMST’s policy embraces connectivity. According to the IMST webpage, “IMST believes a large-scale or ‘landscape’ perspective should be used in managing salmonid habitat at both individual sites and across the landscape of Oregon.”

The review is supposed to be completed this month. But what does all this habitat planning mean for the marbled murrelets, spotted owls and threatened salmon of the Elliott?

Vote for the flying potatoes?

The Nov. 2 election will in part determine what happens on the Elliott. Cascadia Wildlands has proposed that the Elliott is worth more to kids and to Oregonians standing than it is as cut timber. The group even proposed that the State Land Board consider the Elliott’s worth as carbon credit storage. Curtis says, “even though current or potential future regulated carbon markets don’t appear promising for the Elliott State Forest, the State Land Board might consider other types of viable ecosystem service transactions on a voluntary basis.”

Two slots on the SLB are open: the governor’s and the state treasurer’s. The third slot, secretary of state, an office currently held by Kate Brown is not up for election this year. According to Eatherington the Elliott’s fate lies in their hands. “They need to step up and forge a new vision for the Elliott,” she says. “They should protect native forests for carbon and habitat and limit logging to young tree plantations.”

Although Republican Chris Dudley’s campaign did not respond by press time to EW’s questions on the Elliott, Dudley did tell the Oregonian, “improving the management of the 93,000 acre Eliot (sic) State Forest, alone, could create at least 150 new jobs and more revenue for the Common School Fund.” Dudley did not respond to the paper’s question on what restrictions on logging he would ease to accomplish that.

John Kitzhaber dealt with the Elliott and the Common School Fund when he was Oregon’s governor in 1990s. He told EW, “I am aware of the pressures and challenges facing the Elliot State Forest and will work as governor and as a member of the State Land Board to find the balance between a productive forest that benefits local economies and the Common School Fund and the protection of species.”

Kitzhaber says he will listen to “local communities that rely on revenues from our state forests and conservationists who care very deeply about the health and well-being of our forests” and seek common ground again as he did in the past. 

In an election season splintered by tea bags and secret money, does a flying potato have a chance? Wilderness like the Devil’s Staircase teeters on the brink of being protected and working forests like the Elliott could become tree plantations or be managed as valuable habitat in an era of climate change and sprawl. In Oregon the question is not why the wildlife crossed the road, but can it?   




Estimates of the mass of carbon that would be released by logging 500 acres of the Elliott State Forest differ, but the low end is approximately 78,000 metric tons. The number isn’t firm, because of differing calculations of the amount of carbon that remains in wood products that leave the forest.

But what does 78,000 metric tons mean?

It’s 171,990,000 pounds of carbon, each year. In comparison, it would take a person driving a 2010 Range Rover 10,000 miles per year more than 13,000 years to release that much carbon, according to

Carbon becomes sequestered in a forest when trees take in C02 during photosynthesis. Some carbon stays in the tree, both above and below ground, while some becomes sequestered in the soil. Natural events like leaf decomposition and respiration release some carbon back into the atmosphere.

As they grow older, trees store more and more carbon, until they reach a saturation level at which they contain the maximum amount of carbon, usually around the age of the Elliott State Forest. Because the surrounding soil has not been disturbed, either, its carbon loss has been due to only natural respiration.

According to the ODF’s carbon storage state of the science report, not harvesting forests often increases their ability to act as a carbon store. The report says, “Forests that grow more and bigger trees are generally more effective at sequestering and storing carbon than those harvested at shorter intervals, even when carbon stored in wood products is taken into account.” 

Groups like Cascadia Wildlands are pushing to use the Elliott as a potential source of funding for schools, by selling carbon offset credits. — Shannon Finnell