COOS COUNTY — The sale of Coos County's Elliott State Forest was blocked after the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the 2014 sale of the 788-acre East Hakki Ridge tract on the 93,000-acre Elliott State Forest east of Coos Bay was illegal.
The ruling, which overturns the sale of the public land to a private timber company, marks a major win for the state’s public lands.
“This is a huge victory for public lands enthusiasts who were locked out of the forest after the state of Oregon recklessly sold this tract to the timber industry,” said Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands and an individual plaintiff in the case. “Privatizing public land would have been a disaster for imperiled salmon and wildlife that rely on clean water and old forests to survive.”
This was bad news for the timber industry, particularly the Seneca Jones Timber Company, the prospective buyer of the East Hakki Ridge tract.
“We are of course disappointed by Wednesday’s Oregon Court of Appeals ruling," said Todd A. Payne, Seneca-Jones Timber Company chief executive officer. "The Elliott State Forest was set up to be managed sustainably and provide critical funding for the Oregon common school fund in perpetuity. This was done with tremendous thought and wisdom. The Elliott has gone from a revenue generating asset worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a liability for the state. It’s unfortunate as the financial benefits would have accrued to the students of this state. A state that currently ranks 48th in graduation rates.”
Cascadia Wildlands, Audubon Society of Portland and Center for Biological Diversity brought the lawsuit under an Oregon law, ORS 530.450, which states that it is illegal to sell the Elliott State Forest. State officials defended their decision to dispose of the parcel in court saying the State Land Board should not be required to follow the law.
“The decision by the state to sell off portions off the Elliott State Forest and avoid its legal obligations to protect imperiled marbled murrelets and the forests in which they depend was fundamentally flawed from the start,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Audubon. “It is now time for the state to step up and manage this amazing forest in a way that truly protects murrelets, spotted owls, coho salmon and other species that depend on our older forests.”
County officials were disappointed by the court's ruling.
"It's an unfortunate decision for the schools," said Coos County Commissioner John Sweet. "Education is the real loser."
Sweet said the the land was originally deeded to the state by the federal government to generate revenue for the Common School Fund to fund kindergarten through 12th grade education.
"Instead of contributing revenue to the Common School Fund, this decision is costing the school fund money in management costs," Sweet said.
The state’s privatization plan was in direct response to a successful 2012 case brought by the same conservation organizations, which halted dozens of old-growth timber sales on the Elliott, Clatsop and Tillamook state forests, where threatened marbled murrelets were nesting.
The imperiled seabird is unique, flying upwards of 40 miles inland to lay a single egg on a wide mossy limb in the region’s remaining older rainforests. Clearcutting of its habitat is the bird’s primary threat.
“The state should never have sold these public lands in the first place,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Elliott State Forest is a treasure to all Oregonians, providing critical habitat to coho salmon, marbled murrelets and people alike.”
ORS 530.450 withdraws from sale any lands on the Elliott State Forest that were originally part of the Siuslaw National Forest. The East Hakki Ridge parcel, located just south of the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area on Oregon Highway 38, fell within this category.
“The Elliott State Forest is one of the few places left in the Oregon Coast Range that has not been completely mowed over,” said attorney Daniel Kruse. “It is such a beautiful and important place, and today’s decision confirms that it cannot be sold off to the highest bidder for a quick dollar.”
Sold to Seneca Jones Timber Company for $1.9 million, the East Hakki Ridge parcel was one of a handful of forested tracts the state sold to the timber industry in 2014. Another parcel, the 355-acre Benson Ridge tract, was sold to Scott Timber Company and is also currently subject to litigation.
The different state sales were looked at as test cases to sell off the entire Elliott State Forest to the timber industry. The State Land Board, made up of the governor, secretary of state and treasurer, oversees management of the Forest and was ready to sell the entire forest in 2017.
After significant grassroots organizing and legal campaigns by concerned Oregonians, the Land Board, led by Gov. Kate Brown, reversed course and opted to keep the treasured forest in public ownership. The 2017 Oregon Legislature later allocated $100 million in bonding revenue to help keep the forest public for the diversity of values it offers, like clean water, old-growth forests, salmon and wildlife habitat, carbon storage and recreation opportunities.
The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys Daniel Kruse of Eugene and Nicolas Cady with Cascadia Wildlands.