Mismanagement of the Elliott State Forest in Coos and Douglas counties in recent years has cost Oregon schools hundreds of millions of dollars, our local families and communities the loss of hundreds of high-wage blue-collar jobs, and with an ever-increasing risk of catastrophic wildfire to Reedsport, Lakeside, North Bend and Coos Bay.
Somehow this news has mostly been kept quiet and away from public attention.
There is still time to fix these problems, but that time is short and citizens must become aware of how they developed in the first place — and what can be done now to reverse course before things become worse.
The Elliott State Forest is Oregon’s first state forest. It was created in 1930 specifically for the purpose of funding Oregon’s Common School Fund. Such properties are required by federal law to be managed to the maximum economic benefit of all Oregon schools. Beginning with statehood in 1859 and continuing to present, management has been the responsibility of the State Land Board: Governor, State Treasurer, and Secretary of State.
The Elliott was created by combining the scattered remnants of other Common School Fund properties around the state and trading them for Siuslaw National Forest lands and other private and public holdings to form a composite 60,000 acres of immature timberland.
Most of the Elliott had been denuded by catastrophic wildfires from 1840 through the late 1800s. By 1930 the land was mostly covered by young Douglas fir saplings with only 4,000 acres in mature timber that had escaped the fires. Informed estimates were the new forest could begin harvesting a sustainable 50 million board feet (mmbf) of timber per year, once the trees had matured.
By the mid-1950s the saplings had developed into young second-growth timber approaching commercial size. The decision was then made to sell the older trees in order to pay for a series of access roads to and through the Elliott. The purpose was to begin active management of the developing second-growth; most of the remaining older trees were then logged at that time and the proposed roads built.
Then, in 1962 the Columbus Day Storm blew down 100 mmbf of 70-year-old trees on the Elliott, causing an immediate need to accelerate harvest schedules — and finally begin providing regular jobs and incomes to local communities and Oregon schools, as originally planned.
Jerry Phillips, long-time Coos Bay resident, began working on the Elliott in the 1950s and continued there until his retirement as its manager in 1989. He is the Elliott’s historian and his 1996 414-page history, Caulked Boots and Cheese Sandwiches, includes detailed accounts of the 1962 hurricane and the subsequent management challenges and accomplishments that resulted.
During his career Phillips added several thousand acres to the Elliott by way of statewide and local land trades and sales. He was also able to sell 50 mmbf of timber a year the entire time, adding greatly to local jobs, government treasuries, and the Common School Fund.
Despite the continued harvest, when Phillips retired there was a far greater volume of older trees than when he began — mostly because the Elliott grows 60 to 80 mmbf of new timber a year, whether it is logged or not.
Almost immediately after Phillips’ retirement, harvest levels, employment, and income from the Elliott plummeted dramatically. Federal regulations, environmental lawsuits, and political decisions based on “critical habitat” designations for marbled murrelets and spotted owls were the stated causes.
Problems only became worse in following years and a new plan was written in 2008 to stabilize jobs and income and to meet perceived federal regulations. Another lawsuit was filed and the plan was not adopted. More lawsuits were filed and the Elliott began losing money for the first time in more than 50 years.
The Land Board tried to rid itself of these problems by hastily appraising the Elliott at a fraction of its former value and attempting to sell it for $220.8 million — no more and no less. There was a single bidder at this fixed rate and the curious transaction approved. Under public pressure the Land Board then reversed itself and negated the sale.
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The Giesy Plan Alternative
As these latter events were unfolding in 2016, then-Oregon State Senator Ted Ferrioli was meeting regularly with long-time associate and forest industry supporter, Wayne Giesy. Meetings often included a continued discussion of many years regarding Giesy’s theories on ending the costly “timber wars” that had become imbedded between proponents and opponents of active forest management.
Giesy’s thought was that if public forestlands could be divided into three zones — riparian, habitat, and product — that would help resolve the legal disputes of previous decades without unfairly punishing rural families and businesses, and while making certain desired wildlife habitat conditions were maintained.
Ferrioli suggested that a “Giesy Plan Alternative” to management of the Elliott as a test for application on federal forestlands might be a good idea. At that point Giesy and I began to develop this proposal and continued to work on it almost daily until his passing last August at age 99.
The plan would only last 20 years and rigorously research land use patterns of key Elliott bird, fish, and animal species by using the successful Oregon State University (OSU) “paired watersheds” design employed for many years on the North Umpqua River. By that time, taxpayers and scientists would have far better information for making a new set of long-term plans for the property.
Basic elements of the proposal were to divide the Elliott into about 25 subbasins, similar to the 2008 plan. Fish-bearing riparian areas would be managed separately and upper forested slopes would be used either for older forest habitat or for intensive harvest. Animal populations would be closely monitored to see how different species responded to each condition. All while maintaining Phillips’ 50 mmbf per year harvest schedule for schools and local jobs.
A 2017 analysis by an Oregon Legislative Economist estimated the plan would produce more than $440 million for the Common School Fund and more than 440 local jobs over the 20-year life of the plan.
This proposal was formally entered into the public record at three Land Board meetings, endorsed by Boost Southern Oregon, discussed on a number of Lars Larson radio interviews, thoroughly written about in a series of articles for a statewide sportsman’s magazine, presented to a number of industrial organizations, and then somehow buried without comment.
Instead, the State Land Board opted to — hopefully — sell the Elliott to OSU at the reduced sales price and give a year to develop a long-term “research forest” plan for the Elliott with little mention of the proposal already on the table.
During the recent meetings in Coos Bay and Reedsport with OSU, Department of State Lands, and local residents on Oct. 23 and 25, tentative plans were revealed in which more than one-half of the Elliott would be reserved for wildlife habitat, the remainder used for a series of research projects, and logging reduced to as little as 10 mmbf/year “incidental harvest related to research.”
There are real questions as to how OSU could even afford to manage the Elliott with these numbers, much less pay for ownership or produce income for the Common School Fund.
What can be done to restore the Elliott to an actively managed condition, as previously required by law? A condition that would result in hundreds of needed local jobs and hundreds of millions of needed revenues for our schools — and with thousands of acres set aside for older forest habitat? Perhaps, ideally, even directly managed by Coos and Douglas counties and local tribes?
The next meeting of the State Land Board to consider the OSU proposal and the future of the Elliott is on Dec. 10, in Salem.
Dr. Bob Zybach has a PhD in Environmental Sciences from OSU, with a research focus on forest fire history and reforestation planning. He has been Program Manager for ORWW.org since 1996.