Despite facing a $1.8 billion shortfall in Oregon’s next biennial budget, Gov. Kate Brown wants to spend more than $100 million to break a deal the state made in 2015 to sell the Elliott State Forest.
Luckily for common sense and financial responsibility, the governor was blocked this week by new members of the State Land Board, Democratic Treasurer Tobias Read and Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. But the fight isn’t over yet.
The relevant history of the Elliott goes back to the state’s founding. When Oregon became a state in 1859, it set aside land in each of its townships to support public education. Consolidated into the 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest in the 1930s, the land continued to do its job until environmental lawsuits slowed logging in 2012. Now it costs the state money instead of providing income for schools.
Seeking to satisfy its responsibility to fund schools, the State Land Board decided in 2015 to sell the Elliott. A consortium of the Lone Rock Timber Management Company, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and the Confederated Tribe of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians agreed to buy it. Working toward closing the deal, the state has spent more than $3.5 million and the buyers more than $500,000, according to Richardson.
But Brown got cold feet when the environmental lobby went to work. Having heard from “hundreds of Oregonians,” Brown recently announced she wants to ignore the thousands of students across the state whose schools have depended on funds from the Elliott. Instead of gaining funds for education, she wants the state to buy the forest to preserve it, spending money the state doesn’t have.
Environmentalists describe a sold Elliott as one ruined by clear-cut logging, muddied streams and locked gates, according to a report in the Register-Guard. That ignores significant safeguards included in the deal, as well as other provisions added by Read this week.
Although outvoted at this week’s meeting, the governor ordered a report on options for public ownership to be presented in April.
Read is sure to come under heavy pressure from fellow Democrats to go along with the governor. The Oregonian newspaper quoted Oregon Wild’s Sean Stevens saying his organization “will be working diligently to remind Oregonians of Treasurer Tobias Read’s vote to sell off the Elliott State Forest.”
Read and Richardson have chosen the right course. Now Read needs to resist pressure and persevere.