SALEM — The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled against the sale of a portion of the Elliott State Forest to a private timber company, drawing cheers from environmental groups that sought to protect wildlife habitat and public access.
In 2014, the Oregon State Land Board decided to sell a 788-acre tract of the forest near Reedsport — known as East Hakki Ridge — to Seneca Jones Timber Co., prompting a lawsuit from Cascadia Wildlands, Audubon Society of Portland and the Center for Biological Diversity.
A circuit court in Eugene originally threw out the case, though the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the sale in 2014, finding it violated an old state law that prohibits selling any lands on the Elliott State Forest that were originally part of the Siuslaw National Forest.
The state Supreme Court upheld that ruling in a decision handed down on Nov. 27.
“Oregon’s highest court has spoken, and it is illegal for the state of Oregon to sell off the treasured Elliott State Forest,” said Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands. “Those who appreciate clean water, stately forests and access to our public lands are the big winners today.”
Established in 1930, the Elliott State Forest includes 93,000 acres in Coos and Douglas counties. Revenue from timber harvest goes to support the state’s Common School Fund.
Approximately 70,000 acres were transferred by the federal government from the Siuslaw National Forest for the Elliott State Forest, and in 1957 the Oregon Legislature passed a law preventing any of those lands from being sold. That includes East Hakki Ridge, located immediately south of the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area along Highway 38.
Attorney Daniel Kruse of Eugene represented the plaintiffs in the case. He said the State Land Board — made up of the governor, secretary of state and treasurer — had been operating under the assumption that they were required to maximize timber revenue from the Elliott State Forest.
“The state is not under a legal obligation to maximize revenue from these state lands,” Kruse said. “That is just not the standard, and the Supreme Court made that clear today.”
East Hakki Ridge is a mixture of 130- to 140-year old trees, Kruse said, providing nesting habitat for marbled murrelets, a small species of threatened seabird along the Oregon coast. The forest is also home to coho salmon, spotted owls and is a popular area for hunting and hiking, Kruse added.
“It’s a really beautiful mixture of native forests that have never been logged before,” he said.
Casey Roscoe, a spokeswoman for Seneca Jones Timber Co., said they are still looking at the ruling and “trying to understand what it will mean in the long run for the children of Oregon” by eliminating potential revenue for the school fund.
A spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of State Lands said the agency is also still reviewing the high court’s decision.
Another parcel in the Elliott State Forest, the 355-acre Benson ridge tract, was sold in 2014 to Scott Timber Co. is also currently subject to litigation by the same plaintiffs over habitat for marbled murrelet.