A section of Elliott State Forest near Loon Lake was logged. (Photo provided by Francis Eatherington via Oregon Capital Chronicle)

After five years of collaborating with tribes and state agencies to create the largest research forest in North America, Oregon State University officials have decided they will no longer participate in its management.

The announcement came in a letter from the university’s new president, Jayathi Murthy, to the State Land Board on Monday, just over a month before the state’s deadline to submit a critical habitat conservation plan for the Elliott State Research Forest to federal agencies for approval. The university’s decision stems from “the difficulty of resolving the competing interests of state, tribal, industry, environmentalist and community interests,” it said in a release

In her letter, Murthy said she was concerned the current management and habitat plans for the 80,000-acre forest north of Coos Bay would not allow enough logging and would not bring in sustainable revenue. 

“Regretfully, I find the current trajectory of the planning process is on a course that will fail to deliver the public good anticipated, and falls well short of the ‘world class research forest’ envisioned,” she wrote. She added that the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, partners in the forest’s planning and management, have also expressed to university leadership that more forestland needs to be opened to logging. 

The Elliott State Forest has about 41,000 acres of old-growth trees, making it one of the largest uncut areas left in the Oregon Coast Range, according to Oregon Wild. It also has some of the most productive and pristine streams for protected salmon and critical habitat for threatened species, such marbled murrelets, northern spotted owls and salmon. 

As a research forest, it can be studied for sustainable logging, habitat and conservation practices and used for recreation. 

Without Oregon State’s involvement, the Oregon Department of State Lands could be set back in its planning, but not derailed, said department director Vicki Walker. 

“Let me be abundantly clear,” she wrote in response to Murthy’s letter, “the state remains deeply committed to the vision of an Elliott State Research Forest. The department will continue to work collaboratively with the prospective board, tribes, stakeholders and partners to map out options and actions needed for the research forest to become a reality.”

From working forest to research forest

The Elliott State Research Forest, formerly the Elliott State Forest, was Oregon’s first “state forest” taken from the ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. Since the early 1900s, it was logged to provide revenue for the state’s Common School Fund. In 2016, the state took it out of production, in large part because it had been too heavily logged and lawsuits claiming violations of the Endangered Species Act had limited much of the logging still allowed in the forest. 

The State Land Board attempted to sell it to a private timber company, but under pressure from environmentalists brought the Department of State Lands, Oregon State University and the Confederated Tribes together as co-partners to manage it as a future research forest.

By December 2022, state officials voted to buy the forest with $220 million of Oregon taxpayer funds, and to take it out of production for schools. The Legislature created a new government entity, the Elliott State Research Forest Authority, to oversee the management of the forest by the state, tribes and university. 

According to current habitat and forest management plans, about one-third of the forest cannot be intensively logged and about one-third of it cannot be logged at all. About 14,000 acres, nearly one-fifth of the forest, is open to clearcutting and about 3,400 acres of old growth up to 160-years old can be logged. An unknown number of acres could be used as carbon sinks to offset polluters who buy into carbon credit markets. 

That was also a point of contention for Murthy, according to her letter. 

Desired timber harvests

Walker of the state lands department said in her letter that taking some acreage out of logging and putting it into carbon sequestration would help the state meet climate resilience goals without impacting research, and she reiterated that the forest management and habitat plans currently drafted reflect the realities of complying with federal laws.

“I also want to reaffirm basic expectations for the Elliott State Research Forest,” she wrote. “The research forest must be supported by a habitat conservation plan that complies with the Endangered Species Act.”

Brad Kneaper, council chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians said in a news release Wednesday that the acreage taken out of management for logging would hurt species and the forest’s health. 

“This approach stands in contrast to a tribal approach, which favors active stewardship to promote an ecologically diverse and resilient landscape,” he wrote. 

Kneaper referred to the reserve acres as “no touch” and said that they would lead to overgrown tree canopies crowding out diverse species and plant life in the forest. 

“These forests have been stewarded by tribal people since time immemorial. We traditionally used fire, pruning, harvesting, and planting to create a healthy and diverse landscape,” he said. “The forest was healthy, and helped to provide the tribe with the culturally important species such as deer and elk, salmon and lamprey, berries and cedar on which our people and our culture thrived.”

In the news release, Kneaper applauded Oregon State’s “decision to delay final action on the Elliott and continue to work with the tribe,” suggesting the tribe could follow suit. 

“The tribe hopes that the Department of State Lands will reevaluate this position and will continue to work with the tribe rather than move forward against the opposition of the tribe,” he wrote. 

What’s next?

The newfound dissatisfaction from the tribes and university this late in the planning process confounds Bob Sallinger, a member of the nine-member board of the Elliott State Research Forest Authority and director of the nonprofit Bird Conservation Oregon.

“The fact is that everyone — OSU and the tribes — were at the table when all of these decisions were made for the better part of half a decade,” he said. “We’re still getting our heads around what has happened, but I think it’s entirely possible to move forward based upon the work that was done.”

Sallinger said Oregon State’s exit will not sink the ship, and that perhaps it will play a less involved role but still benefit from the forest. 

“They can do research on the forest, or they can choose not to. I don’t think OSU was necessarily essential to moving this forward,” he said. 

Walker wrote that the state lands department would submit its habitat conservation plan to federal agencies and that she would soon release additional information on a path forward.

“Oregonians across the state came together in support of a research forest and collaboratively created the foundations we are continuing to work from: the Elliott as a publicly owned forest that has completed its obligation to funding schools, but will continue to contribute to conservation, recreation, education, indigenous culture and local economies as a research forest,” she wrote.


Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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