Oregon State University College of Forestry will spend the next year working with the Department of State Lands to transform the Elliott State Forest into a research forest, the State Land Board decided Tuesday.
OSU College of Forestry Interim Dean Anthony Davis told the board an Elliott State Research Forest could benefit the nation and even the world for the next 100 years.
The forest is large enough to provide a unique opportunity for scientists to develop new knowledge about how best to steward the land, including how to manage forests to address climate change, Davis said.
“We are in a climate crisis now, and we have to be doing everything in our power to inform forest conservation and management into the future, from mitigating the effects of devastating fires to protecting our water resources. Our forests are worthy of the dedication of our brightest minds, and they need continuing scientific discovery to sustain our forest ecosystems and our forest economies,” he said.
Before making its decision, the Land Board also heard suggestions about the forest’s future from representatives of Douglas and Coos Counties, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, environmentalists and others.
Coos County Commissioner John Sweet said his county wants to work with Douglas County and a local tribe on a plan that would allow for forest management for cultural, recreational and economic benefits.
Sweet said Coos County does not have a lot of money, and purchasing the Elliott would be a “heavy lift.” It would issue bonds and bring in partners to help purchase the property, and it would have to harvest timber, he said.
“We must be able to harvest the forest at a level adequate to fully fund its management and to service debt necessary to acquire the (forest),” he said.
Sweet proposed permanently reserving 20,000 acres of the Elliott, with the remaining 60,000 acres harvested on a 120-year rotation. Less than 1 percent of the land would be harvested for timber each year, so about half the trees would be more than 80 years old at any given time. That plan would yield roughly 27.5 million board feet of timber annually worth about $11 million, he said.
Sweet said the county would welcome OSU researchers also using the forest as a laboratory.
Most of the Elliott lies within Coos County, with the rest in Douglas County. Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice spoke to the board briefly Tuesday, saying Douglas County would be interested in working with Coos County. He said Douglas County has similar interests and the same financial limitations as Coos County does.
He also said the forest could be used to create a pilot program for management on federal timberlands formerly owned by the Oregon & California Railroad.
Attorney Anthony Broadman, representing the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, told the board the Elliott is part of the land base that was stolen from local tribes, and that the Cow Creek Tribe has a long history of sustainable forest management. However, he said the tribe could not afford to purchase the forest without a partner.
Broadman said the Cow Creek tribe had spent significant time and resources attempting to find a solution to the problem of how to manage the Elliott, referring to an earlier proposal the tribe crafted with Lone Rock Timber Management Company to purchase and manage the land. The state voted in 2017 to sell the forest to the tribe and Lone Rock, but backed out later that year.
“The tribe is disappointed about the past, but it is here to look forward,” Broadman said.
While the tribe indicated it is not in a position to attempt to purchase the land, OSU officials indicated they would be interested in working with the Cow Creek Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw.
Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Chief Warren Brainard said the tribes want to be a part of whatever management plan happens for the forest, and that their policy is to manage the land for the benefit of the next seven generations.
The board also heard from the nonprofit Christian group Raw Foundation, which proposed purchasing the forest for Christian campers but also offering access to the general public. It heard from environmentalists who encouraged forest conservation to sequester carbon and combat climate change. And it heard from former state representative Wayne Giesy, 98, of the Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, who proposed that the Land Board retain ownership and continue managing the forest for the benefit of the Oregon Common School Fund.
It was the OSU plan that received the nod from the Land Board, whose members include Gov. Kate Brown, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and Treasurer Tobias Read.
Read said he was excited about creating a research forest where scientists will study forest management and climate change.
“I think this is a really big opportunity for us as a state to answer some really big questions that will define who we are in decades to come,” he said.
Richardson said a partnership between OSU, the tribes and the counties would be a natural fit.
“In my opinion this would be best for the schools, for the economy and for the taxpayers,” he said.