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Alternative plans sought for Oregon's oldest state forest

By ANDREW SELSKY
Of the Associated Press

KEIZER — In a public meeting that exposed deep concerns about global warming and deforestation, Oregon's top elected state leaders on Tuesday postponed a decision on the proposed sale of the Elliott State Forest to a timber company, instead making a pitch for alternatives that would maintain public ownership of the state's first public forest.

Speaker after speaker came from cities, towns and farms to pack the meeting room in the Keizer Community Center, north of Salem. They beseeched their leaders to reject the sale of the 82,500-acre forest in the Coastal Range to Lone Rock Timber Co. and its tribal partners.

They said a line must be drawn to preserve public lands, expressing fear that a Trump presidency would try to sell some of the lands to enrich a few, and that the next administration would also ignore the threat of global warming.

The sale of the forest was proposed because timber harvest revenues that go into a school fund have dropped in recent years.

“Teddy Roosevelt and people like our first forester, Francis Elliott, went to great efforts to preserve these last great tracts of unclaimed land for future generations of Americans to enjoy and recreate on. I did not think I would have to be here in 2016 to defend them,” Joseph Metzler, a retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer from Coos Bay, told the State Land Board.

Those in flannel outnumbered those wearing suits at the 3½-hour meeting attended by more than 200 people.

Some school board representatives backed the sale, saying the $221 million it would fetch should go into the Common School Fund. Several speakers recommended that if the sale does not go forward, that the forest be removed from the Common School Fund portfolio so it would not suffer negative impacts with declining timber harvests.

Lone Rock, based in Roseburg, had said it was confident that it could turn a profit by extracting at least 35 million board feet per year from the forest while providing protections for older forests, streams, recreation opportunities and local jobs. The state has not logged nearly that amount in recent years, at least in part because of environmental protections and lawsuits.

“It is a sustainable harvest level based on the estimated 70+ million board feet of forest growth each year,” Jake Gibbs, director of external affairs of Lone Rock Resources, told The Associated Press in an email.

After years of being profitable since 1997, net revenue from the forest fell from $5.8 million in 2012 to losses of $3.3 million in 2013 and $1.8 million in 2014, the Oregon Department of State Lands says. But 2015 saw gains. This year through 2019 are expected to be borderline.

People who came to testify before the board, composed of Gov. Kate Brown, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins, warned that no trespassing signs would go up and that the forest might be resold down the line. They said that a sale could embolden people like Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, who led the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon last winter.

Grandmothers and even children were among those who took three seats at a time before the board to testify. Clapping was banned, so people showed silent support for comments that they liked by waving their hands in the air. Some of those who spoke against the deal said Native Americans should get much more than the small share the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians would obtain in the deal.

At the close of the meeting, Brown encouraged those attending to help find a solution.

“This is your opportunity, and I expect that you will work quickly, collaboratively and thoughtfully and hope that we can come up with another proposal that will maintain the Elliott in public ownership,” she said to a burst of applause.

She said she is proposing that the state use up to $100 million in bonding authority to pay into the Common School Fund and relieve the Elliott of part of its fiduciary responsibility for the fund.

The Department of State Lands said it will continue to work with the proposers of the purchase plan, including exploring the potential for additional partners, possibly involving public entities. The State Land Board instructed the department to provide an update on Feb. 14.

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