This clearcut in the northeast corner of the Elliott was home to 120-year-old Douglas fir trees prior to their harvest in 2011. Photo by Clayton Franke.

The Elliott’s Potentially Peaceful Future

New bill would decouple the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Fund and create new research forest

Francis Eatherington’s iPad slides across the dash of her Subaru as she swings the car onto the 7700 road in the Elliott State Forest. The tablet is full of downloadable maps of past timber sales, some she stopped, some she didn’t. Cobwebs in the corner of the dash light up as sunlight beams through the windshield. She stops the car in the middle of the road and pulls out a paper map littered with swatches of blue, pink and yellow and a web of logging roads.

“It’s kind of like a plate of spaghetti,” she says of the map.

The graveled forest roads weave through the Elliott — 82,000 acres of clearcuts, timber plantations and native old growth forests just south of the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon’s Coast Range. Eatherington, the former conservation director at Cascadia Wildlands, knows the roads well from her work fighting old growth timber harvests and protecting endangered species habitat. 

The Elliott has been one of the battlegrounds for Oregon’s “timber wars,” with decades of conflict surrounding forest ownership and timber harvest revenue. But a new bill in the Oregon Legislature could resolve the conflict and pave the way for other agreements between historically disparate groups.  

In 1859, Congress granted Oregon statehood. Along with statehood, Congress designated 3.4 million acres of Oregon’s land to be managed by the Department of State Lands (DSL) for the purpose of funding Oregon’s K-12 schools. According to the DSL, the fund’s current value is $2.2 billion. The State Land Board — a group consisting of the governor, treasurer and secretary of state —  designated $64.2 million (or 3.5 percent) for spending in 2022. Today, Common School Fund land is one quarter of the size it was when the state was founded. Over time, Oregon sold parts of the land and some was even swindled.

The state established the land that is now the Elliott as Oregon’s first state forest in 1930 by exchanging Common School Fund lands for a large block from the Siuslaw National Forest, and the fund began relying on revenue from the forest. Senate Bill 1546 in the Oregon Legislature would decouple the Elliott from the Common School Fund, meaning the Elliott’s trees would not be harvested in an effort to generate money for Oregon’s schools.

“It’s incredibly archaic to try to tie logging in a state forest to school funding,” says Josh Laughlin, Cascadia Wildlands executive director. 

The bill would also create the Elliott State Research Forest, transferring management to Oregon State University and a new state entity, the Elliott State Research Authority, potentially resolving the forest’s long-time saga between the state, Oregon’s public schools, environmental groups and the timber industry. 

”People have been beating each other’s heads in for 30 years now, and they’re tired,” says Sen. Jeff Golden of Ashland, chair of the Oregon Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery. “They’re looking for a peaceful path forward, and this bill gives more cause for hope.”

Golden says SB 1546 is a result of three years of collaboration from the main stakeholders who worked on an advisory committee that included representatives from Native American tribes, conservation groups, the state and timber interests. 

“We have a really strong interest in the Elliott,” says Colin Beck, forest lands manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. “It’s right in the middle of our ancestral territories. We still have many of our tribal members who use the Elliott on a regular basis.”

For decoupling to occur, the state will buy out the appraised value of the forest, which is $221 million. In December 2018, the State Land Board approved $100 million in bonding toward decoupling. The remaining $121 million will come from the state’s general fund.

Since the establishment of the forest, money from timber harvest has not only supported the Common School Fund, but forest management costs. However, several Endangered Species Act lawsuits by conservation groups over the last 20 years have lowered the value of the forest. The ESA protects the marbled murrelet — a rare seabird — northern spotted owls, coho salmon and coastal martens, the latter of which were listed as threatened in 2020, that inhabit the Elliott. After a 2012 murrelet lawsuit from Cascadia Wildlands, the state could no longer log much of the old growth forest, and it started to lose money to forest management costs, leading the SLB to consider alternative ownership of the forest. 

In late 2016, the board voted to privatize the Elliott and agreed to sell the forest to Lone Rock Timber Company and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. But a few months later, public pressure forced the board to abandon privatization and come up with a new public plan for the Elliott, which involved the $100 million in bonding. 

The DSL and OSU then began exploring concepts for the Elliott State Research Forest. 

Original plans had OSU assuming ownership of the research forest, but the university backed out last fall, saying the financial risk was too high. OSU’s 2020 management proposal suggested a $2.1 million yearly deficit due to forest management costs. 

But in OSU’s most recent proposal, experimental timber harvest — used to study the effects of logging — will generate enough revenue to cover management costs, and no timber harvest will be conducted solely for the purpose of revenue. In addition, the forest could make money through research grants and carbon credits to offset other costs or reinvest into the forest.

The plan designates different management strategies for harvest management. About 51,000 acres of the forest are in no-harvest or reserve classifications, while 31,000 are in either extensive or intensive harvest. Most of the areas of harvest are in previously logged and replanted sections of land.

According to Geoff Huntington, the Elliott State Research Forest project advisor for DSL, the project will look for federal funding to cover a $35 million startup cost that includes research equipment and a new $17 million research and administration building. Timber harvest revenue won’t kick in for the first three years of operation. Oregon Treasurer Chief of Staff Dmitri Palmateer says the state is in a “good spot” to receive these funds. 

SB 1546 also includes strong conservation measures for endangered species. Last fall, the DSL submitted a Habitat Conservation Plan for the forest that “establishes clear boundaries for timber harvest” in compliance with the ESA, including stream buffers for logging to protect salmon. The plan conserves old growth habitat for marbled murrelets. Eatherington says the birds need the wide, moss-covered branches only available in large trees for their nests. 

“It’s hopeful that our native forests will continue to grow into really significant old growth and they’ll never be threatened again,” Eatherington says.

After passing out of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife, the bill now sits in the Joint Ways and Means Committee and awaits its passage to the House. The current legislative session ends on March 5. Sen. Golden says he thinks the odds are “very high” that the bill will pass. 

“These negotiators who had been at odds for so long are coming together shoulder to shoulder in the legislature and saying, ‘Oregon needs this bill,’” Golden says. “That goes a long way around here.”