Elliott State Forest Plan Advances

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

On December 8, a plan to convert the Elliott State Forest into an Oregon State University research forest took a major step forward when the Oregon Land Board, composed of Governor Brown, Treasurer Read, and Secretary of State Clarno, advanced a proposed plan into its final phase. Over the next 18 to 24 months, we will be working to bring this plan to a successful completion.

The 82,000 acre Elliott State Forest is one of the crown jewels of the Oregon Coast Range. It is a stronghold for nesting Marbled Murrelets and Northern Spotted Owls and contains some of Oregon’s most productive and pristine streams for Coho Salmon. It is an amazing place that deserves real and durable protections.

A Northern Spotted Owl perches on a mossy branch, while looking up towards the upper tree canopy.
Northern Spotted Owl by Scott Carpenter

The forest also comes with a long history of conflict and mismanagement, including illegal clear-cut logging and illegal land sales that have put those values in jeopardy. Further complexity is added by the fact that the Elliott is legislatively bound to the Common School Fund—an anachronistic structure that ties school funding to timber harvest and has driven unsustainable liquidation of the forest in recent decades. 

Over the past 15 years, Portland Audubon, along with Cascadia Wildlands and Center for Biological Diversity, has been a plaintiff in three lawsuits focused on ending illegal logging and protecting federally listed Marbled Murrelets on the Elliott. At the time the first lawsuit was launched, the State was cutting upwards of 500 acres of mature forest every year and planning to increase timber harvest from 25 million board feet to 40 million board feet. During 2016 and 2017, we actively opposed an attempted sale of the Elliott by the State of Oregon to private timber interests and advocated in the legislature for funding to decouple the Elliott from the Common School Fund. 

For the past two years, Bob Sallinger has represented Portland Audubon as one of three conservation representatives on the Elliott State Research Forest Stakeholder Advisory Committee, working with Oregon State University, Division of State Lands, and representatives from Tribes, counties, timber interests, schools, and recreational users to develop a strategy to convert the Elliott into an OSU research forest.

Portland Audubon has viewed this as an opportunity to build bridges between historically conflicted parties and to truly provide the Elliott with the protection that it deserves. 

Coho Salmon by Bureau for Land Management

For Portland Audubon, our North Star on the Elliott has always been achieving real and durable protections for its mature forest stands and imperiled species. We believe that the proposed plan has the potential to achieve those goals:

  • The plan protects more than 90% of the older forests (>65 years of age) in permanent reserve.
  • The plan places 66% of the entire forest (54,154 acres) in permanent reserves.
  • The plan creates a contiguous reserve area (over 34,000 acres) representing more than 40% of the entire forest and will become the largest reserve in the entire Oregon Coast Range.
  • The plan will result over time in an Elliott that is substantially older and less fragmented than it is today. In 50 years, more than 70% of the Elliott will be mature forest as compared with approximately 50% today.

As with any complex plan, there are also real tradeoffs: 

  • Clear-cutting will continue on approximately 14,579 acres (18% of the Elliott). All clear-cuts would occur in stands less than 65 years old that have previously been clear-cut, would be done on 60-year rotations, and would include riparian buffers.
  • Selective harvest would occur on 14,654 acres, which includes approximately 3,200 acres of older forest (65-162 years old) including some Marbled Murrelet–occupied habitat.

It has not been easy to get to this point. The issues orbiting the Elliott are complex, and decades of conflict have built up reservoirs of distrust. It has taken a monumental amount of negotiation. We appreciate the degree to which all parties have worked in good faith to bridge divides and find common ground. While there are elements within the plan that we disagree with, we believe that overall this plan will put the Elliott on a path toward ecological health while meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders. 

Key issues that need to be addressed in the final phase of this process include putting in place strong accountability, transparency, and enforcement mechanisms for OSU. This includes public notice and comment and public records provisions as well as a right for third parties to bring litigation to enforce the terms of the agreements. The plan must incorporate a stronger focus on climate resiliency and climate-related research and incorporate carbon credits into its financing structure. The plan must result in complete decoupling of the Elliott from the Common School Fund. Finally, the plan must be accompanied by a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service that confirm that adequate protections will be in place to help recover federally listed species. 

Marbled Murrelet chick in an old growth forest, photo by Aaron, Allred

We believe that this proposal creates the basis for transcending historic conflicts and setting the Elliott on a new trajectory. We envision a future in which the Elliott supports world-class research on topics such as climate resiliency, imperiled species recovery, and sustainable forestry, where the Elliott significantly increases in ecological health over time, and in which the Elliott provides predictable and sustainable support for local economies and amazing recreational opportunities for visitors. There is difficult work still ahead, but we are hopeful that the Elliott is on the precipice of a new era.