Today, the Cascade Policy Institute released a report analyzing the range of policy options for turning the Elliott State Forest from a liability into an asset for Oregon’s Common School Fund.
The Elliott State Forest (ESF), located on Oregon’s South Coast, is part of a portfolio of lands known as “Common School Trust Lands.” These lands are an endowment for the Oregon public school system and must be managed by the State Land Board to maximize income over the long term. Unfortunately, due to environmental litigation, income from the Elliott’s net timber harvest receipts has been steadily declining over the past two decades. In 2013, the ESF cost Oregon taxpayers $3 million, which was a drain on the Common School Fund.
“The State Land Board has been watching the financial returns from the Elliott State Forest steadily decline for over 20 years, while doing essentially nothing,” said Cascade Policy Institute President John A. Charles, Jr.
“The Elliott is now a liability instead of the $800 million asset it was in 1995. Oregon schools deserve better,” said Charles. “The State Land Board has a fiduciary obligation to take decisive action, and the analysis by Strata Policy helps provide a road map for Board decision-making.”
The Land Board in 2014 directed the Oregon Department of State Lands to develop a “new business model” for the ESF. The Cascade report, prepared on contract by Strata Policy, a Utah-based consulting firm, provides a critical review of various options for accomplishing this goal.
The report divides the known options into three categories: viable options, potentially viable options, and individually unviable options.The top three recommendations – the only ones considered “viable” – are full privatization, a land exchange with the federal government, and completion of a Habitat Conservation Plan that would allow logging in habitat currently used by protected species.
The full privatization option was analyzed at length for Cascade Policy Institute by economist Eric Fruits and published as a separate paper in March. Selling or leasing the forest clearly would result in the greatest financial returns to Trust Land beneficiaries over the long term.
A land exchange with the federal government also could result in healthy financial returns to the Common Schools if any lands could be identified for such an exchange, but that is doubtful given the litigious nature of federal forest management in the Pacific Northwest. Moreover, it would take Congressional approval, which likely would take a decade or more to execute. Such delays appear to be a violation of the fiduciary trust responsibilities held by the Land Board.
Development of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) would face the same bureaucratic challenges. Oregon attempted to develop an HCP in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and spent $3 million over a 10-year period without gaining federal approval. Before reviving this effort, there needs to be some reassurance from the federal government that an HCP is actually possible.
The Land Board is scheduled to take public testimony regarding ESF management in Coos Bay on October 8, and will discuss options for a “new business model” at its December meeting in Salem.