Three top elected officials in Oregon are now embroiled in a messy political struggle over whether to privatize an 82,500-acre state forest near Coos Bay.
The infighting among Gov. Kate Brown, Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson — the three members of the State Land Board — is highly unusual in a state dominated by Democratic officials who tend to prize cooperation over confrontation.
But Read, a Democrat, has joined forces with Richardson, who last fall became the first Republican elected statewide since 2002 and the first Republican on the land board since 1993.
Together, they voted to push forward with the sale of the forest to the Roseburg-based Lone Rock Timber Management Co., which is partnering with a tribal consortium.
Brown two years ago voted to start the sales process after environmental restrictions hindered the state’s ability to reliably profit from harvesting timber in the Elliott. Under the state Constitution, the forest is supposed to be managed for the benefit of Oregon schools.
But Brown has turned into an opponent, saying the proposed sale price of $220.8 million for the Elliott is too low and she sees several other benefits to keeping the Elliott under state ownership.
Her turnabout also comes as the Elliott has become a huge issue for the state’s environmental community. In part, conservationists see it as a proxy battle for a potential fight in Congress over the fate of hundreds of millions of acres of federal forests and grasslands throughout the West.
“I think this is going to live on as one of the great environmental failures in the state’s history” if the forest is sold, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. “And I think it is something that will haunt people for the rest of their careers if they support privatization.”
At the heart of the debate is a forest in an isolated part of southwest Oregon. Depending on your perspective, it’s either primarily a working forest dedicated to timber production or an ecologically sensitive home to old-growth trees and endangered species like coho salmon and the marbled murrelet.
Richardson says the forest is no Yosemite or Yellowstone, and he criticizes the state’s “inability to manage that richly productive timberland.”
The new secretary of state — often mentioned as a potential candidate for governor against Brown next year — has taken to attacking her on the issue. He told a conference of conservative activists last week Brown broke faith with Lone Rock and the tribes by reversing her position.
“The governor said, ‘We can’t sell this, we can’t,'” Richardson said. “And I’m saying, 'Where were you in August of 2015 when you said yes you will?’”
And he said the tribes — the Cow Creek Band and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians — were once again being promised a deal that will “last as long as the rivers will flow and the grass will grow,” only to see Brown back away.
Richardson’s position on the Elliott is not surprising. But it was Tobias Read who shocked and angered Brown when she tried to float a plan for keeping the forest in public hands during a Feb. 14 land board meeting.
Read had talked favorably about protecting the Elliott during his election campaign. But now he says he sees no alternative but to proceed with the sale.
“I’m obligated to provide that undivided loyalty to the schoolkids of Oregon,” he said in an interview with OPB. “It’s not optional.”
Although the land board voted 2-1 to move forward with the sale, it’s still not final. Brown said she’ll return to the board in April with her own proposal for floating $100 million in state bonds.
That money would help pay the common school fund and reduce the need for timber harvests in the Elliott.
Several Democratic lawmakers are also working on a bill taking the same approach, although critics say that $100 million in borrowing would also cause a drain on an already hard-pressed state budget.
“I don’t understand why the public has to service debt for something the public already owns,” said John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank. He has long argued the state should jettison a forest that has declined in value as environmental restrictions reduced logging.
Brown also said keeping the forest public could help the state meet its goals for reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change. And she expressed alarm the Republican-led Congress may seek to transfer federal lands to state or private use.
“From my perspective, the importance of state-owned land has increased as the future of federal public lands has come into question,” she declared at the land board meeting.
In the meantime, environmental activists have launched a full-court press to get Read to back off on the sale. They’ve besieged his office with phone calls, emails and personal visits.
Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, said he’s confident Brown can come up with a proposal to protect the common school fund and state ownership of the Elliott. And he said Read would be breaking a political promise if he goes ahead with the sale.
Moore said his group, as well as the Sierra Club and Oregon Wild, endorsed Read in his election race last year chiefly because he said he would work to keep the Elliott public.
“My board voted unanimously for him,” Moore said, “and everybody walked out of that room feeling like he would protect the Elliott State Forest.”
Read, a former state representative from Beaverton, said he has long tried to find a way to keep the forest as public land. He introduced an unsuccessful bill in 2015 aimed at having the Oregon Legislature gradually buy out the common school fund’s interest in the Elliott.
At this point, Read said, “I feel like I don’t have a viable alternative to consider.”
However, Read also said he’ll continue “talking with stakeholders and trying to explore other possibilities.”
EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita contributed to this report.