What a difference a couple of years make.
It was in December 2014 that the State Land Board, made up of then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, then-Secretary of State Kate Brown and Treasurer Ted Wheeler, voted unanimously to explore selling the Elliott State Forest. Now, two years later, two of those officeholders have changed their minds and the third is no longer in office.
Yet the circumstances that led to the sale proposal have not changed, and the current land board, including Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, should stick to the original plan.
The forest, 82,500 acres of timberland, is Oregon’s oldest, created in 1930. It is managed by the state Department of Forestry to generate money for the Common School Fund.
It’s done that. Timber sales on the Elliott have contributed nearly $300 million to the fund over the years.
But that was then, and this is now. Today the forest either makes less than $1 million annually or actually costs the state money. The presence of three threatened species — coho salmon, northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet — and resulting lawsuits have brought timber harvests to a halt.
That reality led to the decision to sell the forest.
Now, faced with actual willing buyers, a partnership between a timber company and Indian tribe, and vociferous opposition from a slew of environmental groups, the land board is waffling, and doing so badly. Thus, meeting Dec. 13, the board agreed to continue to work on the current sale proposal but to also consider selling $100 million in state bonds to buy the Elliott out of any obligation to the Common School Fund.
It’s a terrible idea.
Selling bonds will raise money for schools, to be sure, but the state will continue to spend money on the Elliott to keep it healthy. The current sale offer, meanwhile, includes both a guarantee of public access to the land and protection for old-growth timber. Moreover, the state’s take from the sale is more than double what the bond sale would bring.
Those are solid reasons for sticking with the original plan, a plan the new land board, Brown, incoming Treasurer Tobias Read and incoming Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, should embrace when they hold their first meeting in February.