By John A. Charles, Jr.
Last year the S&P 500 Index had a total return on investment of 32%. That should have been good news for Oregon public schools, which receive twice-yearly checks from an endowment known as the Common School Fund (CSF).
One of the largest assets supporting the Fund is the 93,000-acre Elliott State Forest, near Coos Bay. Net timber harvest receipts from the Elliott are transferred to the CSF, where the money is invested in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments.
Unfortunately, the Elliott did not return 32% last year. It did not even return zero percent. The state actually lost $3 million. That is quite a feat of mismanagement for timberland valued at more than $500 million.
The Elliott is governed by the State Land Board, comprised of Governor John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown, and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler. Under their leadership, timber harvesting has steadily declined on the Elliott, so that roughly 78% of the forest is off-limits. Since overhead is relatively fixed (e.g., fire suppression and road maintenance), if harvest is halted, the forest loses money.
The Elliott is part of a broader portfolio of lands known as the Common School Trust Lands. Under the terms of the Oregon Admissions Act, the primary management objective for Trust Lands is to raise money for the Common School Fund. Therefore, the Land Board has a fiduciary duty to maximize timber harvest on the Elliott.
As environmental litigation became more widespread in the 1980s, it became clear that “fiduciary trust” would start taking a back seat to wildlife habitat preservation in state forests. Knowing this, in 1994 outside consultant John Beuter was retained by the Department of Forestry to look at various options for increasing revenue to the School Fund from the ESF. His conclusion: “Selling the Elliott is the only marketing alternative likely to significantly increase net annual income to the CSF.”
The Land Board did consider this option in 1995-96, but rejected it. Instead, the Board wasted more than a decade on a futile attempt at negotiating with the federal government on a so-called “Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP) for spotted owls and marbled murrelets. But ultimately the Board was left at the altar by federal negotiators, and the HCP was abandoned.
This continual appeasement emboldened environmental activists, who sued to halt virtually all commercial logging on the Elliott. As single-issue advocates, they have never cared about the collateral damage to schools. They only want one thing, and that is a shutdown of commercial timber harvest on the ESF.
There is a better way. Selling or leasing the Elliott would result in much more revenue for schools while still protecting bird habitat, because private landowners are subject to Endangered Species Act regulation just as the state is. However, it’s well known in the industry that private landowners use different compliance techniques that allow reasonable levels of harvest, while also maintaining necessary habitat. Private owners generally don’t waste time trying to negotiate HCPs.
To its credit, the Land Board has recently acknowledged that the status quo is unacceptable and is reviewing bids for three parcels of the ESF that it may sell off this year, totaling some 2,700 acres. Selling this land would help erase the $3 million loss from last year, but the basic problem remains: The state itself is a poor manager of commercial timberland.
A recent study by independent economist Eric Fruits reinforces the conclusion made by John Beuter 20 years ago, namely that Oregon schools would gain additional revenues of $40-50 million per year if the state placed management of the Elliott in private hands. While this is not the only option available, it is clearly the one that would generate the most money for schools. Therefore, it needs to be seriously considered by the Land Board.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.