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State Land Board postpones Elliott Forest decision

When it finally came time for deciding the future of the Elliott State Forest after years of study and debate, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler spoke for the State Land Board’s three members in saying “we’re not there yet.”

The Board, composed of Wheeler, Gov. Kate Brown, and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, concluded a meeting Tuesday without acting on a planned sale of the property for $220.8 million, with proceeds going into the Common School Fund.

Instead, they decided to take more time to decide the future of the 82,500-acre Coast Range forest. After listening to hours of testimony – much of it in opposition – Brown opened the possibility of adding public money into the mix to preserve the Coast Range property in public ownership.

While the governor was short on details, she made it clear that she wanted a plan that would assure a financial benefit to the Common School Fund property by “decoupling” the school funding and property ownership issues. To that end, Brown said she would ask the Legislature to approve $100 million in bond sales to meet the state’s obligation to the Common School Fund. She told the Department of State Lands to pursue a “Plan B” of possible public and private ownership before the board discusses the matter again in February.

Brown didn’t entirely block the path for the long-discussed sale of the property, which is largely located in Coos County. She said the Department of State Lands should continue working with the sole bidder on the property, a partnership of Lone Rock Resources and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, to resolve unanswered questions about the partnership’s bid.

The decision will now move to a new State Land Board that will include Tobias Reed, replacing Wheeler as state treasurer, and Dennis Richardson, who will succeed Atkins as Secretary of State.

In public testimony that stretched for almost three hours, the proposed sale won support from some school officials and education advocates, and from the Coos County Board of Commissioners, but few others.

OSBA Board Members Kevin Cassidy (Baker School Board) and Maureen Wolf (Tigard-Tualatin School Board) said they supported the sale. Laurie Wimmer, the Oregon Education Association’s government relations consultant, also testified in favor of the sale.

Most of the nearly 100 speakers who followed argued that the forest is an irreplaceable treasure for habitat, forest preservation, and recreation that should not be sold even with provisions designed to assure public access and habitat protection. Many who testified were Coos County residents, but citizens and environmental advocates from Portland, Eugene, and other communities joined them.

A common theme was the need to separate out the issues of school funding and forest preservation.

“This is a death sentence for the Elliott,” said Anna Fay of Southern Oregon. “We have pitted endangered species against education, which is insane.”

Native American activist Se-ah-dom Edmo pushed back against the environmental consensus opposing the sale, saying that the deal would allow the Cow Creek tribe to retain property ownership lost generations ago.

“This land is returning to the hands of tribes including family and locally owned businesses,” she said. “When it comes right down to it your environmental argument sounds like entitled colonial settlement mindset.”

Michael Rondeau, CEO of Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, had told the Board that the landless tribe had long pursued land ownership because the U.S. government had failed to deliver on its promise of a reservation for the tribe.