A state forest in Coos and Douglas counties is on track to become a laboratory for Oregon State University forestry researchers.
On Tuesday, the State Land Board directed the Department of State Lands to finalize a proposal that would transfer management of the Elliott State Forest over to the university’s College of Forestry for use as a research forest.
“It is truly an example of the Oregon way, and I am truly, truly grateful,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
The plan means the 82,000 acres of forest will likely become one of the largest research forests in the world.
It also means the forest will become a laboratory of sorts, when it’s split up into several sections so researchers can study the impact of a mix of types of logging to maximize timber production while keeping a forest healthy, College of Forestry Dean Tom DeLuca told the Land Board Tuesday.
“We cannot continue to consume products and expect to not produce those regionally or locally,” DeLuca told the board as he presented the university’s proposal. “We have to take into account climate change, we have to take into account biodiversity, and we have to integrate these efforts when we’re managing, rather than managing strictly from a revenue perspective.”
OSU officials pointed to some of the plan’s outcomes, aside from the research that could be conducted by OSU scientists, including the creation of a 34,000-acre forest reserve, increasing by half the amount of forest over 100 years old by 2070 and producing about 17 million board feet of timber a year.
During the meeting, members of the State Land Board — Governor Kate Brown, State Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Bev Clarno — peppered DeLuca with questions about the proposal.
Of interest to Brown, as well some who submitted public comments, was the plan for expanding recreation opportunities on the forest.
The plan keeps the forest public, and DeLuca said the university would limit public access only in cases of sensitive scientific experiments or during timber harvest activity.
“We are absolutely planning to expand the recreational opportunities on the forest. There are very few hiking trails in the forest as it currently stands, and that would be an objective that we would take on,” DeLuca said. “We intend to have the forest fully accessible for public use.”
In the public comment period of the meeting, a handful of individuals addressed the Land Board on some of the key outstanding concerns about the plan, including calling for a focus on carbon research, plans to cut some older trees and unclear mechanisms to hold OSU accountable for its environmental commitments.
Others suggested that future versions of the plan should include the involvement of other OSU academic areas, like climate science and fisheries and wildlife sciences.
“We support continuing with OSU, but also believe this potential can be better achieved by OSU as a whole than by the OSU College of Forestry alone,” said Teresa Bird, representing Coast Range Forest Watch, a forest advocacy group based in Coos Bay.
The Land Board also heard from the plan’s advisory committee, a group of 16 representatives of conservation groups, local counties, tribes, school districts and timber operators which met to provide feedback on drafts of the plan.
Keith Tymchuck, a former Reedsport mayor, spoke on behalf of the group, saying they were in unanimous support of the proposal after a number of compromises between competing interests.
“No stakeholder group got everything they wanted in this proposal,” Tymchuck said. “However, we believe the interests of all stakeholders will be substantially advanced by this proposal.”
Paul Beck, a representative of Douglas Timber Operators on the advisory committee, told the land board about the need to balance the future of the forest between natural reserve and planned activity, and that the research produced by OSU scientists could benefit Southern Oregon communities.
“The forest-dependent communities that I was asked to represent in this effort are dying. The forest policies that control these decimated parts of rural Oregon are all too often based on unproven hypothesis at best, and pure mythology at worst,” Beck told the board, holding back tears as he discussed the wildfires which ravaged parts of Douglas County this summer. “We have an opportunity to create a process where we create real science that can inform public opinion and drive policy.”
Still, many pieces of the puzzle have to be finalized before OSU has full control over the forest.
“This is not a done deal by any means,” Brown said.
Remaining elements could take university and state officials through 2022 to figure out, Department of State Lands Director Vicki Walker told the members of the Land Board.
Key to those issues will be the “decoupling” of the Elliott from the Common School Fund. That fund pays for some public school activities, and has historically been supported by now-dwindling revenues from the forest.
The state’s constitution dictates that the Land Board manage lands like the Elliott in ways that benefit the school fund and Oregon’s students. In her comments at the meeting, Clarno noted that conservation lawsuits have made it nearly impossible for the Elliott’s timber revenue to be great enough to fund schools in recent decades.
“Many Oregonians live in areas of this state where they will never get to set foot on the Elliott,” Clarno said. “But their children are suffering from the lack of school funding and the ability to benefit from the internet.”
The school fund will need about $121 million to be “made whole” after it loses the Elliott as a source of revenue — an amount still unaccounted for in public state plans.
Among other areas on the list to complete before the transfer is finalized by the board: A plan for riparian protections in the forest, the hiring of research forest leaders, a habitat conservation plan and state legislation to finalize the transfer of the forest’s management.
“No one on this team can probably say that this is exactly the proposal they would’ve presented if the job had been theirs alone,” Read said. “That might be a model that has resonance to a lot of other issues that we’re going to confront over time.”
More information about the proposal and its future steps is available on the Department of State Lands website at oregon.gov/dsl/Land/Pages/Elliott.aspx.