Faculty from the Oregon State University College of Forestry held a listening session about the future of the Elliot State Forest at the Douglas County Extension Office in Roseburg on Thursday night.
It was the third of three sessions aimed at collecting comments from people about how the forest should be used if the university gains ownership of it. The previous two sessions were in North Bend and Reedsport.
The university signed a memorandum of understanding with the State Land Board in December to spend the year exploring how the 93,000-acre forest, located in Douglas and Coos counties, could be turned into a research forest.
After endangered species court rulings limited logging and the state stopped generating money from the forest, as required for the Common School Fund, the Land Board voted to sell it to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians in partnership with Lone Rock Timber Management Company for $221 million in 2016.
In 2017, facing backlash from environmentalists, the Land Board backed out of its plan.
Although the university doesn’t currently have the funds to purchase the forest, OSU officials have said the forest would provide a unique opportunity to study how to best to manage such lands with increasing concerns about climate change in mind.
The forest contains both young- and old-growth timber stands, as well as threatened species such as the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. It would be the largest research forest in the country.
The university will send a report to the Land Board later this year discussing its plans for the forest. At the listening session, university officials said including the public in the planning process is crucial.
“We understand how important it is for community members to come voice their opinions on a place that matters so much to them,” said Research Forest Project Coordinator Jennah Stillman.
After a presentation about the College of Forestry and its interest in the forest by Associate Dean for Research Katy Kavanagh, about 30 people at the session split into groups to discuss four topics: timber and local economy, research and education, conservation and recreation. University officials recorded people’s comments, categorizing them as opportunities or concerns.
People at the timber and local economy table raised concerns about the college’s ability to turn a profit on the forest — its rugged terrain may limit logging operations. They added if the university was able to overcome environmental barriers, logging profits could provide much needed revenue to local economies that have been depressed for years with the decline of the timber industry.
Matt Hill, executive director of Douglas Timber Operators, an timber industry advocacy group, said he was concerned with turning the Elliot into a research forest when “millions of acres” of Oregon forestland are already available for research by multiple agencies and academic institutions.
“Why does OSU need the Elliot to carry out its other research functions, or does the Elliot have any particular value?” Hill asked. “Why is the Elliot different and what does OSU expect to get?”
Dan Pennington, who is part of Coast Range Forest Watch, an environmental organization based in Coos Bay, said the forest is ecologically-unique because half the forest was not logged after a fire burned it in the late 19th century.
“When you look at carbon storage potential in the coast range forests in Oregon, it’s the highest carbon storage potential of any forest on earth, about twice as much as the Amazon,” Pennington said. “So I think it’s an incredible opportunity for research. And I think the half that has already been logged is a perfect opportunity to continue to manage it in a way that’s responsible.”
He added he has seen coast range watersheds harmed by the effects of clearcutting and would like to see the university research selective thinning practices.
Elkton Mayor Daniel Burke said the Elliot is a perfect opportunity to manage a forest in a way that benefits both the environment and local economies.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in Douglas County and live my whole life in the Elkton area,” Burke said. “And I’ve watched what happened over the years when the timber industry took a dive, and I’ve watched the Elliot as it has really not been managed.”
He said communities such as Scottsburg and Wells Creek have suffered from the decline of the timber industry.
“It’s such a unique opportunity to start doing something with it and benefiting these rural communities,” Burke said. “I want to have the same opportunities for kids that I had.”
Senior Association Dean of the College of Forestry Jim Johnson said people at all three sessions have been grateful to be included in the planning process. He said while people have raised helpful concerns about how the college will manage the forest for its potential economic, research, environmental and recreational benefits, much of the feedback has been positive.
“People want OSU to be there and have a presence in the community, not just come down, spend a day mucking around in the woods and run back to Corvallis,” Johnson said. “They want to see a long-term commitment and investment.”